Issues Associated with Executive Session Board Meetings

Lena Eisenstein
Executive session board meetings often bring about thoughts of secrecy and back room deals. When a public school board requires an executive session board meeting, the chair of the school board should take time to evaluate and validate the needs of the closed session.

Public school boards work hard to establish trust with the local community and executive session board meetings can threaten that trust and transparency. It is imperative that the public school board utilizes executive session board meetings effectively, efficiently, and ethically.

There are several issues associated with executive session board meetings. It is imperative that the public school board evaluate the need and details related to the executive session board meeting to avoid any problems or concerns that could dissolve trust or break policy or laws.

Using Executive Session Board Meetings Unethically

Some school boards will call an executive session board meeting for 'personnel reasons' if they feel like their agenda for an open meeting is threatened. Once hidden from public view, decisions are made that should include public input or be made at an open meeting. Using executive session board meetings in this way undermines the purpose of the public board meetings.

Stating that an executive session board meeting will be used to discuss a valid issue, but then switch to an issue that should be discussed in an open meeting is unethical and can cultivate a culture that lacks integrity and promotes concealment and secrecy.

When public school board members get into the habit of using executive session board meetings in unethical ways, it is imperative that the school board chair revisit important training materials regarding open meeting laws, closed meetings, and open meetings with board members.

Open Meeting Laws and Executive Session Board Meetings

Every state has reasons that an executive session board meeting may be called, some states greatly differ from others in these reasons. Purposes for executive session board meetings may include specific personnel issues, setting strategies for bargaining or litigation, and budget cuts and exemptions. For these reasons, it is imperative that school board members are knowledgeable regarding their state's open meeting laws.

For example, Texas' Open Meetings Act permits executive session board meetings when a board may be meeting with their attorney regarding litigation or a settlement offer, for deliberating personnel matters, discussing the purchase or lease of property, discussing certain financial contract negotiations, or discussing the deployment of security devices.

School boards may include the rationale for the executive session board meeting on the meeting agenda. The chapter and section of the state's open meeting law related to your board's meeting topic should be included in the agenda. Maintaining this information can be helpful in validating the purpose of the executive session board meeting should your board face litigation.

State open meeting laws outline what the school board will need to know regarding holding an executive session board meeting, so it is imperative that school board members are abreast of these regulations. Utilizing the right board management software, materials regarding the state's open meeting laws can be shared within the portal for continuous reference.

BoardDocs allows board members to create training events (for instance, a training covering open meeting laws) and share and access materials related to these trainings. Documents related to policies, laws, and regulations can also be accessed in the 'Library' feature, where these materials are also searchable by keyword.

Executive Session Board Meeting Agendas and Materials

While there may not be an agenda for a closed meeting if it has been called during an open meeting, there should always be an agenda for pre-announced closed meetings.

Executive session board meeting agendas should be detailed. Every possible topic that may need to be discussed at the closed meeting should be included in the executive session board meeting agenda. If the topic is not listed, it should not be discussed. If the discussion surrounding one topic leads to another, the meeting cannot turn to talk about the new topic if it has not been included in the executive session board meeting agenda.

Deciding the amount of detail for the executive session board meeting agenda is difficult. The agenda must be enough to validate the closed session meeting but not detailed enough to compromise the confidentiality that makes the meeting necessary.

Public school boards must be intentional in how they handle and prepare materials regarding executive session board meetings. While any materials distributed or shared during the executive session board meeting should remain confidential beyond the closed meeting, these documents can be searched and used during litigation.

Leveraging an online board management software, board members are able to share and access materials and closed meeting agendas that are only available to users with specific roles, like board members and/or administrators. BoardDocs allows for customized privacy settings for agendas and related documents, so only users with approved roles may have access.

An “Event” for the executive session board meeting can be created, with the agenda linked to the event. BoardDocs enables documents and related meeting materials to then be linked to agendas. The interlinking of meeting related information can greatly simplify the process.

Confidentiality of Executive Session Board Meetings

All board members should be completely aware that executive session board meetings are confidential. If anyone is not in attendance that needs to be briefed, the chair of the board may handle that responsibility.

To keep the public school board informed of agenda topics, documents containing confidential information are vital and helpful. For meetings that are paper-based, these materials should be distributed at the beginning of the executive session board meeting and then collected at the close of the meeting.

However, school boards can greatly diminish the risk of sensitive information being released by simply making the documents available on a board portal only accessible to authorized users.

BoardDocs, a Diligent brand, can be leveraged in reducing the risk of sensitive information being released beyond the closed meeting. All materials can be uploaded into the portal and only be accessed by board members or other approved users.

Board information is highly secured with 256-bit encryption, the strongest level of cybersecurity currently available. This level of cybersecurity helps mitigate risks associated with sensitive data.

There are several issues associated with executive session board meetings; however, these risks can be mitigated by being aware and utilizing resources that are designed to help reduce the possibility of any of these issues occurring.

When utilizing closed meetings the correct way, boards can still promote trust and transparency with the local community while working toward goals of student and district achievement. Leveraging the right tools, like BoardDocs' online board management software, school boards can effectively, efficiently, and ethically conduct executive session board meetings.
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Lena Eisenstein
Lena Eisenstein is a former Manager at Diligent. Her expertise in mission-driven organizations, including nonprofits, school boards and local governments, centers on how technology and modern governance best practices empower leaders at these organizations to serve their communities with efficiency and purpose.