Parents who live in the state of California should be aware of their rights under the Brown Act (the “Act”). The Act, which was passed by the California Legislature, guarantees the right of the public to attend and participate in meetings that are held by local legislative bodies. School boards and other educational bodies fall into this category, so they must therefore allow the public to attend and participate in their meetings. The Brown Act is located in sections 54950 to 54962 of the California Government Code, and it is often referred to as the “open meeting act.”
Why does this matter to parents? The Act ensures their right to take an active part in the education of their children. While participation in organizations like the PTA can help keep parents informed of events at their children’s schools, attending meetings that are held by local school boards and other organizations allows them to stay abreast of important changes that can affect their children’s education in the district in which they reside. Without the passage of the Brown Act, school boards and other bodies could hold undisclosed, impromptu, informal meetings thereby leaving parents and the general public out of the loop.
Secret meetings are problematic for a number of reasons. Most notably, they may be conducted to avoid public scrutiny regarding controversial or unpopular topics. For parents who like to stay informed about developments in local public education, this poses many serious problems.
Some argue that it is nearly impossible to enforce the Brown Act. Violation of the Act is considered a misdemeanor, but how are secret meetings supposed to be detected? Proponents argue that the mere threat of being charged with a misdemeanor is enough to prompt most legislative bodies to obey the law.
Under the terms of the Brown Act, at least 72 hours of advance notice must be given for a regular meeting, and the agenda must be posted publicly. Minutes must be taken and made available to the public. At least 24 hours of advance notice must be given for a special meeting, and the agenda must be posted at least 24 hours ahead of time. Only items listed on the agenda may be discussed. In the case of an emergency meeting, one-hour notice must be provided by phone to local media outlets, and only items that are listed on the disclosed agenda may be discussed.
Closed sessions are permitted for cases involving pending litigation, personnel matters, labor negotiations, public security and real estate negotiations. They may also be conducted for matters regarding student discipline, but the body must vote and take subsequent action publicly.
By understanding the Brown Act, parents can protect their right to take active, informed roles in their childrens’ educations.