January 17, 2001
The staff of the Committee on Open Government is authorized to issue advisory opinions. The ensuing staff advisory opinion is based solely upon the information presented in your correspondence.
As you are aware, I have received your letter of December 8 in which you sought an opinion "as to whether the provisions of the New York Open Meetings Law apply to meetings held by the school-based building planning committees that were created by the Board of Education...pursuant to regulations issued by the Commissioner of Education." As you indicated, school districts are required by the regulations to develop district plans for the participation of teachers and parents in shared decision-making.
You referred to the "district-wide committee" established in the Greenburgh Eleven Union Free School District, which conducts its meetings in accordance with the Open Meetings Law, for "it carries out functions necessary to the development of the shared decision making district plan that must under the Commissioner's regulations, ultimately be adopted by the full School Board after consideration of the district-wide committee's recommendations." Under the plan adopted by the Board, "school-based building committees are created to provide a forum for input on internal curricular and educational issues at each school building." You added that those committees "function essentially as internal advisory committees for the administrators within a particular school" and as a "sounding board" to help "obtain consensus among the constituent members to ensure that the district's goals set by the School Board are implemented and achieved at each school." You specified that the school-based committees "may offer advice on any educational issue to the appropriate administrators or other groups", but that "they are not obligated to do so, nor is the Board of Education obligated to obtain input from the school-based building committees with respect to any decisions made by the School Board." In contrast, you wrote that the Board "is obligated to consult with the district-wide committee" (emphasis yours).
While the "district-wide committee" established pursuant to regulation is, in my view, a
"public body" required to comply with the Open Meetings Law, the "school-based committees", as you described them, would appear to fall beyond the requirements of that statute. In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, by way of background, §100.11(b) of the regulations promulgated by the Commissioner of Education states in relevant part that:
"By February 1, 1994, each public school district board of education and each board of cooperative educational services (BOCES) shall develop and adopt a district plan for the participation by teachers and parents with administrators and school board members in school-based planning and shared decisionmaking. Such district plan shall be developed in collaboration with a committee composed of the superintendent of schools, administrators selected by the district's administrative bargaining organization(s), teachers selected by the teachers' collective bargaining organization(s), and parents (not employed by the district or a collective bargaining organization representing teachers or administrators in the district) selected by their peers in the manner prescribed by the board of education or BOCES, provided that those portions of the district plan that provide for participation of teachers or administrators in school-based planning and shared decisionmaking may be developed through collective negotiations between the board of education or BOCES and local collective bargaining organizations representing administrators and teachers."
The committee to which reference is made in the provision quoted above is characterized frequently as the "shared decision-making committee" or, as in your letter, the "district-wide committee."
Section 100.11(d) provides in part that:
"The district's plan shall be adopted by the board of education or
BOCES at a public meeting after consultation with and full
participation by the designated representatives of the administrators,
teachers, and parents, and after seeking endorsement of the plan by
such designated representatives."
"Each board of education or BOCES shall submit its district plan to the commissioner for approval within 30 days of adoption of the plan. The commissioner shall approve such district plan upon a finding that it complies with the requirements of this section..."
Additionally, §100.11(e)(1) states that:
"In the event that the board of education or BOCES fails to provide for consultation with, and full participation of, all parties in the development of the plan as required by subdivisions (b) and (d) of this section, the aggrieved party or parties may commence an appeal to the commissioner pursuant to section 310 of the Education Law. Such an appeal may be instituted prior to final adoption of the district plan and shall be instituted no later that 30 days after final adoption of the district plan by the board of education or BOCES."
Second, the Open Meetings Law is applicable to meetings of public bodies, and §102(2) of
that statute defines the phrase "public body" to mean:
"...any entity for which a quorum is required in order to conduct public business and which consists of two or more members, performing a governmental function for the state or for an agency or department thereof, or for a public corporation as defined in section sixty-six of the general construction law, or committee or subcommittee or other similar body of such public body."
Judicial decisions indicate generally that advisory bodies having no power to take final action, other than committees consisting solely of members of public bodies, fall outside the scope of the Open Meetings Law. As stated in those decisions: "it has long been held that the mere giving of advice, even about governmental matters is not itself a governmental function" [Goodson-Todman Enterprises, Ltd. v. Town Board of Milan, 542 NYS 2d 373, 374, 151 AD 2d 642 (1989); Poughkeepsie Newspapers v. Mayor's Intergovernmental Task Force, 145 AD 2d 65, 67 (1989); see also New York Public Interest Research Group v. Governor's Advisory Commission, 507 NYS 2d 798, aff'd with no opinion, 135 AD 2d 1149, motion for leave to appeal denied, 71 NY 2d 964 (1988)].
In this instance, however, although the district-wide committee may or may not have the
ability to make determinations, according to the Commissioner's regulations, it performs a necessary and integral function in the development of shared decision making plans. As stated earlier, the regulations specify that a district plan "shall be developed in collaboration with a committee." As such, a committee must, by law, be involved in the development of a plan. The regulations also indicate that a plan may be adopted by a board of education or BOCES only "after consultation with and full participation by" a committee, and that the Commissioner may approve a plan only after having found that it "complies with the requirements of this section", i.e., when it is found that a committee was involved in the development of a plan. Further, an appeal may be made to the Commissioner if a board has failed to permit "full participation" of a committee.
In the decisions cited earlier, none of the entities were designated by law to carry out a
particular duty and all had purely advisory functions. More analogous to the status of shared
decision-making committees in my view is the decision rendered in MFY Legal Services v. Toia [402 NYS 2d 510 (1977)]. That case involved an advisory body created by statute to advise the Commissioner of the State Department of Social Services. In MFY, it was found that "[a]lthough the duty of the committee is only to give advice which may be disregarded by the Commissioner, the Commissioner may, in some instances, be prohibited from acting before he receives that advice" (id. 511) and that, "[t]herefore, the giving of advice by the Committee either on their own volition or at the request of the Commissioner is a necessary governmental function for the proper actions of the Social Services Department" (id. 511-512).
Again, according to the Commissioner's regulations, which have the force and effect of law,
a plan cannot be adopted absent "collaboration" and participation by a district-wide committee. Since a district-wide committee carries out necessary functions in the development of shared decision making plans, I believe that it performs a governmental function and, therefore, is a public body subject to the Open Meetings Law.
In my opinion, the same conclusion can be reached by viewing the definition of "public
body" in terms of its components. A district-wide committee is an entity consisting of more than two members; it is required in my view to conduct its business subject to quorum requirements (see General Construction Law, §41); and, based upon the preceding commentary, a committee conducts public business and performs a governmental function for a public corporation, such as a school district or a BOCES.
While the Commissioner's regulations make reference to "school-based" committees, there
is no statement concerning their specific role, function or authority. It is my understanding, based upon a discussion with a representative of the State Education Department, that school-based committees carry out their duties in accordance with the plans adopted individually by boards of education in each school district, and that those plans are intended to provide the committees in question varied roles in the decision-making process.
When, for example, a plan provides decision making authority to school-based committees
within a district, those committees, in my opinion, would clearly constitute public bodies required to comply with the Open Meetings Law. Similarly, when a school-based committee performs a function analogous to that of the shared decision-making committee, i.e., where the school-based committee has the authority to recommend, and the decision maker or decision making body must consider its recommendations as a condition precedent to taking action, I believe that the committee would be a public body subject to the Open Meetings Law, even when the recommendations need not be followed. On the other hand, however, if a school-based committee has no decision-making authority, and if the Board of Education is not required to seek such a committee's input or otherwise
consult with the committee prior to the Board's assertion of its authority, the committee, in my opinion, would not constitute a "public body" subject to the Open Meetings Law.
Since the attributes necessary to a finding a school-based committee is a public body do not appear to be present in the context of your inquiry, I do not believe that such committee would be required to comply with the Open Meetings Law. This is not to suggest that a school-based committee cannot hold open meetings, but rather merely that the requirements imposed by the Open Meetings Law are not applicable.
I hope that I have been of assistance. Should any further questions arise, please feel free to
Robert J. Freeman