School boards in Texas have a legal right to, in most cases, conduct closed meetings for committees if they do not have a majority of trustees present, under the Texas Open Meetings Act.
In Fort Worth ISD, there are nine such committees that deal with a variety of topics, including finance, racial equity and safety and security.
While the committee meetings are private, they do give reports to trustees during school board meetings. The district closed committee meetings at the end of 2021.
According to board policy, the president appoints members to special committees and aside from trustees, they can include district personnel and community members. Committees should be fact-finding, deliberative and advisory, but not administrative.
Committees report findings to the board and can be dissolved once tasks are completed or after a vote from the board.
The committee chair decides on whether to host open or closed meetings, as long as there is not a quorum present, Board president Tobi Jackson said.
If someone did want to attend one of the closed committee meetings, they can speak to the committee chair, Jackson said. However, findings are presented to the board.
When she was over the gas committee, Jackson said she opened the meetings and they often took three or four hours.
While the committee meetings without a quorum can legally be closed, First Amendment advocates question if they should be.
The Open Meetings Act — state law that requires government bodies to hold meetings that are open to the public — does not apply unless a quorum, a majority of the board, is present, said Joseph Larsen, first amendment lawyer at Gregor, Wynn, Arney.
“I think it’s always better to be transparent,” Larsen said.
“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, another four have three members and one committee has two members. None constitute a majority of board members.
“So committees usually make recommendations, and if a committee is doing more than making a recommendation, if the committee’s making decisions, then they have to comply with the Open Meetings Act,” Larsen said.
The law has flexibility for voting in those committee meetings as well, Larsen said. If the committee is deciding about what to recommend to the board and can’t agree, they can vote on it.
“What you can’t have is a quorum voting on something outside public view,” Larsen said. “As long as they don’t violate the act by talking to enough people to form a quorum outside the view (of the public).”
But there is a history of attorney general opinions setting precedent that if a committee has too much power and is actually making decisions, it’s subject to the Open Meetings Act, Larsen said. However, no magic action draws that line in the sand. It’s looked at on a case-by-case basis.
“If the facts show that every time this committee makes a recommendation, the board just takes the recommendation and implements it without any discussion, that becomes the decision,” he said. “You’d have to show a pattern of some kind 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 those same concerns to the full board meeting.
“This is an unpaid volunteer position and efficiency is important and delivering information to the board is their goal as a committee chair,” Jackson said.
Even if it’s legal, Larsen said, in his opinion, it’s better to host open meetings.
“You’re a public servant, this is the job that you took,” he said. “This is the American democratic form of government.”
Kristen Barton is an education reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.