Legal Mailbag – 6-11-20

By Attorney Thomas B. Mooney, Neag School of Education, University of Connecticut

The “Legal Mailbag Question of the Week” is a regular feature of the CAS Weekly NewsBlast. We invite readers to submit short, law-related questions of practical concern to school administrators. Each week, we will select a question and publish an answer. While these answers cannot be considered formal legal advice, they may be of help to you and your colleagues. We may edit your questions, and we will not identify the authors.

Please submit your questions to: legalmailbagatcasciacdotorg.

Dear Legal Mailbag:

At the middle school where I serve as principal, the big question is what is going to happen in the fall. Every day I hear some new rumor, and just yesterday I read that the governor in Rhode Island has announced that students will be returning to schools there on August 31. It is hard to keep track, and the parents at my school are clamoring for concrete news so that they can plan their lives for the fall.

Given these concerns, I thought it best to create a Reopening Committee at my school, composed of some teachers, the assistant principal, the principal (me) and five level-headed parents of students in my school. The charge to the Committee is to meet and plan for the fall, in short to look like we are doing something even though we have no idea what will happen in the fall.

We had our first meeting yesterday, and I was surprised that two of the most anxious and excitable parents at my school showed up uninvited to the meeting. I politely asked them what on God’s green earth they were doing by coming to the meeting. They both claimed that, as parents, they had every right to attend the meeting. However, given that I did not want their questions and whining to distract the Committee, I told them that it was a private meeting and that they should go home. They left in a huff, saying that “we will see about that.”

Should I be concerned?

It’s MY Meeting


Dear Meeting:

Not every legal question has a clear answer, and you have raised such a question. Legal Mailbag is undeterred, however, and is pleased to provide this response, even though it is perforce not an answer.

Your question raises an issue under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), specifically whether committees that a school principal creates are public agencies under the FOIA. If they are, your Reopening Committee is subject to FOIA requirements, i.e., it will have to post its meetings, publish agendas, keep minutes and permit these anxious parents (as well as all other members of the public, including busybodies and reporters) to attend.

The uncertainty comes with the definition of “public agency.” Conn. Gen. Stat. § 1-200(1) defines a “public agency,” and we usually know a public agency when we see it. However, the FOIA defines a “public agency” as including a “public official,” and it also includes “any committee of, or created by” a public agency within the definition of “public agency.” To recap, if a school principal is a “public official,” committees that he or she creates are public agencies subject to FOIA requirements.

Before you have a stroke thinking about the various committees at your school, Legal Mailbag can provide some comfort. “An administrative or staff meeting of a single-member public agency” is excluded from the FOIA definition of “meeting.” Conn. Gen. Stat. Section § 1-200(2). Accordingly, even if a school principal were to be considered a “public official,” meetings of committees composed wholly of staff members would not be public meetings subject to FOIA requirements.

The uncertainty here is whether the Freedom of Information Committee would consider a school principal a “public official.” The Commission has decided on numerous occasions that a school superintendent is a “public official” whose committees (other than those composed solely of staff members) are subject to FOIA requirements. That makes sense, given that superintendents are elected pursuant to statutory requirements as the “chief executive officer” of their respective boards of education. The question is how far down in the organizational chart are positions those of “public officials.”

The Commission found one time that an assistant superintendent in Westport was a “public official,” with the result that an advisory committee she created was subject to FOIA requirements. However, one can reasonably argue that school principals are not “public officials” for a number of reasons: they are not elected, they are members of a bargaining unit, they are covered by the Teacher Tenure Act, etc. But that is an open question under Connecticut law. As a result, you might want to be more welcoming to parents who show up at your Reopening Committee meetings. Legal Mailbag doesn’t know you well, but suspects that you would prefer not to be the test case here.