On November 8, 2023, Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court, in Coleman v. Parkland School District, held that pursuant to Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act, a public entity holding a public meeting must post its agenda at least 24 hours ahead of its scheduled meeting and is prohibited from taking official action or adding items within that 24 hour time frame unless the issue meets one of the three enumerated exceptions under Section 712.1(b), (c), or (d) of the Sunshine Act.
Act 65 of 2021 Amended Sunshine Act
In 2021, Governor Wolf signed Act 65 of 2021 which amended the Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act to require public entities to make their public meeting agendas available to the pubic within 24 hours of a scheduled meeting and prohibited official action on any item not posted on the agenda.
Additionally, Act 65 of 2021 provides enumerated exceptions in which official actions may be taken on an item not posted on the agenda under Sections 712.1(b), (c), (d), and (e). Specifically, Act 65 explicitly identifies the following exceptions:
712.1(b): a matter that relates to a real or potential emergency involving a clear and present danger to life or property; or
712.1(c): a matter brought to the attention of the agency within the 24-hour period prior to the meeting, provided the matter is de minimis in nature and does not involve the expenditure of funds or entering into any contract or agreement; or
712.1(d): a matter raised by a resident or taxpayer at the meeting to be considered for the purposes of referring it to staff, researching it for inclusion at a later meeting, or for full consideration where it is de minimis and does not involve the expenditure of funds or entering into any contract or agreement.
712.1(e): Upon majority vote of the individuals present and voting during the conduct of a meeting, an agency may add a matter of agency business to the agenda. The reasons for the changes to the agenda shall be announced at the meeting before any vote is conducted to make the changes to the agenda. The agency may subsequently take official action on the matter added to the agenda. The agency shall post the amended agenda on the agency’s publicly accessible Internet website, if available, and at the agency’s principal office location no later than the first business day following the meeting at which the agenda was changed.
Facts in this Case
In this present case, the school board added to the agenda at a scheduled meeting by majority vote, and subsequently approved a multiyear Collective Bargain Agreement which increased the pay of teachers. The lower court permitted this action in interpreting Section 712.1(e) to mean that a public entity may add any item to the agenda so long as it was added by majority vote and the agenda was revised and reposted within 24 hours of the meeting.
However, the Commonwealth Court rejected this argument and overruled the lower court, holding that in order for a public agency to add an item to its agenda for official action, the item must first meet one of the exceptions provided in Sections 712.1(b), (c) or (d) and then the agency must vote to add the item to the agenda, by majority vote, pursuant to Section 712.1(e).
Bottom Line for Schools
What does this mean for school boards moving forward? Previously Section 712.1(e) was interpreted and applied to permit an item to be added to an agenda via majority vote, regardless of whether the items met one of the exceptions under Sections 712.1(b), (c) or (d). However, the Commonwealth Court held that this interpretation of Section 712.1(e) is incorrect and would result in a violation of Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act.
It is important for school districts and their respective school boards to be diligent in the application and enforcement of the requirements of the Sunshine Act and be mindful of the new precedent set under Coleman v. Parkland School District.
School boards should ensure they are providing proper public notice under the Sunshine Act by posting their meeting agendas 24 hours in advance on its official website, at the meeting location, and at its principal office, and only take official action on the items posted on said agenda unless the item to be included with the 24 hour notice period is an emergency (Section 712.1(b)), a minor issue that does not involve spending taxpayer funds or entering into a contract or agreement (Section 712.1(c)), or an item or matter raised by a member of the public during a meeting (Section 712.1(d)).
School Law Bullets are meant to be informationational and do not constitute legal advice. School boards with questions should contact their solicitor or one of the Education attorneys at KingSpry.