Texas school boards have the legal right, in most cases, to conduct closed-door meetings for committees if they do not have a majority of directors present, under the Texas Open Meetings Act.
At Fort Worth ISD, there are nine such committees that cover a variety of topics, including finance, racial equity, and security.
Although committee meetings are private, they provide reports to administrators at school board meetings. The district closed committee meetings at the end of 2021.
In accordance with council policy, the chairperson appoints members to special committees and, in addition to trustees, may include district staff and community members. Committees should be fact-finding, deliberative, and advisory, but not administrative.
The committees report their findings to the board and may be dissolved upon completion of their duties or following a vote by the board.
The committee chair decides whether to host open or closed meetings, provided there is no quorum, said Board Chairman Tobi Jackson.
If anyone would like to attend one of the committee meetings behind closed doors, they can speak with the committee chair, Jackson said. However, the results are presented to the board.
When he headed the gas committee, Jackson said he opened up meetings and it often took three or four hours.
While committee meetings without a quorum can legally be closed, the First Amendment supports the question of whether they should be.
The Open Meetings Act — a state law that requires government bodies to hold meetings open to the public — does not apply unless there is a quorum, a majority of the council, Gregor’s First Amendment attorney Wynn said. Arney Joseph Larsen.
“I think it’s always best to be transparent,” said First Amendment attorney Joseph Larsen.
“People don’t trust what they can’t see.”
Fort Worth ISD has nine school board members, and each serves on more than one committee. Four of the committees have four members, four others have three members, and one committee has two members. No one makes up the majority of board members.
“So committees usually make recommendations, and if a committee is doing more than making a recommendation, if the committee is making decisions, then they have to comply with the Open Meetings Act,” Larsen said.
The law also offers flexibility for voting in those committee meetings, Larsen said. If the committee is deciding what to recommend to the board and it disagrees, it can vote.
“What you can’t have is a quorum voting on something out of public view,” Larsen said. “Until they violate the act by talking to enough people to form a quorum out of sight (of the public).”
But there is a history of attorney general opinion that sets a precedent that if a committee has too much power and is actually making decisions, it is subject to the Open Meetings Act, Larsen said. However, no magical action draws that line in the sand. It must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
“If the facts show that whenever this committee makes a recommendation, the board just takes the recommendation and implements it without any discussion, that becomes the decision,” he said. “You should show a pattern of some sort like that. It’s not going to be an easy thing to do, it shouldn’t be an easy thing to do.”
In Jackson’s experience, people who speak at committee meetings often bring the same concerns to the full board meeting.
“This is an unpaid volunteer position and efficiency is important and providing information to the board is their goal as committee chair,” Jackson said.
Even if it’s legal, Larsen said, in his opinion, it’s best to host open meetings.
“You are a civil servant, this is the job you have accepted,” he said. “This is America’s democratic form of government.”
Kristen Barton is an educational reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at [email protected]. At Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial backers. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.