On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization officially declared that COVID-19, a novel coronavirus, has become a pandemic. We anticipate that this virus will pose many challenges to school districts and communities in the coming weeks and months. It is important for public school district boards of education to understand state laws regarding board meetings so that you have a plan in place to effectively maintain operations during this and future pandemics.

How frequently is a board of education required to meet?

Board of education must meet at least once every two months. Regular meetings are scheduled at the organizational meeting in January. A board of education may convene a special meeting by providing proper notice to the board members and the public. Board members must be notified of the special meeting at least two days prior to the event. Additionally, the board must announce special meetings at least 24 hours ahead of time to the public. With this said, the board of education may cancel meetings in its discretion. Notice of meeting cancellation should be provided as soon as possible.

May the Board of Education conduct a remote meeting online or by telephone?

Ohio’s Open Meetings Act, R.C. §121.22, requires a board of education to conduct meetings that are open to the public. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, a member of a public body was required to attend meetings in person even during a health emergency. The Ohio attorney general declared as much in an opinion published in 2009, and concluded that a township could not meet remotely during a pandemic or other public health emergency, even to provide needed response services because this would interfere with the public’s ability to attend. Click here to access 2009 OAG 034. Rather, the Attorney General recognized that a public entity was not permitted to conduct a public meeting remotely unless the General Assembly had authorized it to do so through legislative action.

However, as a sign of the truly unique and unprecedented times we are living in, on March 25th, 2020 the Ohio General Assembly passed an emergency measure through House Bill 197 which temporarily authorizes boards of education and other local government agencies to hold public meetings by teleconference or video conference while the health threat continues.

This law permits members of a school board to participate from a remote location while the emergency is ongoing. Members will be considered present regardless of whether they attend in person or remotely, and their votes will be counted for the purpose of determining quorum. The law declares that any resolution, rule, or formal action taken shall have the same effect as if it had occurred during a typical in-person meeting.

The law also permits a board to fulfill the public access requirement for open meetings by providing members of the public with remote access to the meeting. Examples of acceptable remote access technologies include live-streaming by means of the internet, local radio, television, cable, or public access channels, call in information for a teleconference, or by means of similar electronic technology. The public must be able to observe and hear all discussions and deliberations regardless of whether the board member participates.

If the meetings are streamed over some type of technology, boards must publish information about how the public can access the meetings at least twenty-four hours in advance, unless the board convenes an emergency meeting. Notice should be sent to all members of the media and public who have requested to be notified, and by other means that will reasonably provide notice to the public.

School boards must comply with all other Open Meetings requirements such as quorum and executive sessions. The provisions of HB 197 will remain in effect until December 1, 2020 or until the COVID-19 emergency ceases, whichever comes first.

Prior to HB 197’s passage, the Ohio Attorney General issued a letter on March 13, 2020 shortly following official orders issued by both the Ohio Governor Mike DeWine and the Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton which prohibited mass gatherings and also urged individuals to maintain adequate personal space. The Attorney General emphasized that public business must be allowed to continue in times such as these, but also clearly stated that this opportunity would apply in very narrow circumstances and only while the orders remained in effect. The AG cautions public bodies that they may want to refrain from making decisions that are unrelated to the current health emergency, including examples such as passing a new tax or enacting a new regulatory scheme.

Districts should pay careful attention to the provisions of HB 197 as well as comments included in the Attorney General’s letter, and should contact legal counsel for advice before conducting remote meetings. Click here to access the letter, and click here to review HB 197.

What happens if a majority of board members are unable or unwilling to attend meetings due to personal choice, a quarantine or government order?

A board of education must have a quorum in order to properly conduct school business. A majority of all members of the board constitutes a quorum, and a majority of the quorum is typically sufficient to approve a motion or resolution. Some actions require a special voting majority (a majority of the full board or more) under state law. These include adoption of a resolution to purchase or sell real or personal property, employ a staff member, appoint a public official, pay a debt or claim, and adopt a textbook.

Without having the required voting majorities, the actions may not legally be accomplished. As a result, a board of education may need to consider postponing certain actions and should attempt to reschedule meetings if an insufficient number of members are able to attend. In accordance with HB 197, boards may be able to host remote meetings under certain narrow circumstances during a health emergency. Boards of education may be able to delegate certain decisions to a superintendent, and also may be able to take certain actions retroactively in an emergency.

Will the General Assembly make further changes in the law to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic?

It is likely that local, state and federal governments will work diligently with school districts and communities to address the many challenges that COVID-19 has caused and is likely to cause in the future. Therefore, it is possible that legislative measures will be taken that will allow public bodies to operate differently than before in response to the public health needs of the community. It is not yet certain how serious the pandemic will become, how long it will last, and what short and long-term impacts it will have on school operations. In the meantime, boards should regularly consult trusted sources and with legal counsel to explore options and weigh risks during this novel pandemic situation.

Ennis Britton will update this information if it changes over time.