Caution: School Board eMails Often Are Public Records

Although school board members and district administrators realize that board meetings are open to the public, they may not be aware that eMails they send on professional matters also may be covered by state "sunshine" laws. Complications can arise when an eMail discussion among members of the board and school district is considered a meeting that should be open to the public.

The first thing to remember is that laws on this issue are local and state-specific. Each school board should educate itself about the circumstances under which it is operating, and its members should act accordingly.

But, despite the differences among jurisdictions, a few common issues arise. The first has been referred to already: What constitutes a meeting of a school board, thus putting the correspondence under state sunshine (open meeting) regulations? California, for example, considers teleconferences or even a round-robin series of phone calls to be a meeting, if it concerns an issue of the public interest. Thus, a listserv that routinely shares messages among all board members probably is a "meeting" in California. Florida, on the other hand, requires that any such meeting be at a time and place accessible to the public, so a series of online discussions about a school board planning memo might actually be considered an illegal meeting. Meanwhile, a Missouri court said that meetings only need to be public if a quorum of the board is in attendance, so it will allow a series of one-on-one calls or (presumably) eMails. And yet, the court noted that using the less-than-quorum excuse is not valid if it’s clear that members were communicating individually in a coordinated way to avoid the rule. Nevada’s law is similar to Missouri’s, prohibiting "serial electronic communication" to avoid sunshine laws.

The other primary area in which eMail can come into conflict with state rules is public records. Less conflict has arisen on this issue so far, but it’s likely to arise in the future as the use and subsequent deletion of eMail records grows. California defines quite clearly what types of information are covered by the state’s requirement to maintain and make available public records, and it also defines exemptions for various privacy matters. Schools are expected to maintain eMails that they can provide in print or electronic formats to people requesting them. Florida’s attorney general made the rule even more explicit by stating that eMails are public records. Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act, meanwhile, covers all meetings and correspondence, except those items specifically exempted—and eMail is not exempted.

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