Public Access Opinion 23-016

Improper Closed Session Discussion of Removing Book from Curriculum

Open Meetings Act - OMA
Case: Public Access Opinion 23-016
Date: Wednesday, December 27, 2023

On September 28, 2023, Requestor submitted a Request for Review to the Public Access Counselor (PAC) alleging that on August 7, 2023, the Board of Education of Yorkville Community Unit School District 115 (Board) improperly discussed, in closed session, removing the book Just Mercy from a course curriculum.

Section 2(a) of OMA requires that all meetings of public bodies be open to the public unless the subject of the meeting is covered by one of the exceptions set forth in Section 2(c) of OMA. The Board argued that its closed session discussion of Just Mercy was proper under the exceptions in Sections 2(c)(1), 2(c)(4), and 2(c)(10) of OMA. The PAC reviewed each of these closed session exceptions in turn.

Section 2(c)(1) of OMA permits closed session discussion of the appointment, employment, compensation, discipline, performance, or dismissal of specific employees. The Board argued that it was discussing a complaint filed against three specific employees. The Board acknowledged that much of its discussion centered around the appropriateness of the book but asserted that the purpose was to resolve the complaint against specific employees. After reviewing the verbatim recording of the closed session, the PAC disagreed with the Board’s assertion and found it “abundantly clear” that the discussion occurred to make a curriculum decision about the book.

Section 2(c)(4) of OMA permits evidence or testimony to be presented in a closed session hearing to a quasi-adjudicatory body when specifically authorized by law. The Board argued that it acts as a quasi-adjudicatory body and is required to provide due process to individuals in multiple scenarios, including but not limited to: the suspension or expulsion of pupils, the removal or dismissal of tenured teachers, and student residency disputes. In this case, however, the PAC found that the Board had not identified any specific statutory basis in the School Code for it to act as a quasi-adjudicatory body regarding removal of a book from a course curriculum. Moreover, the PAC noted that within the first few minutes of the closed session discussion, Board members acknowledged that they were there to make a curriculum decision about Just Mercy.

Section 2(c)(10) of OMA permits closed session discussion of the placement of individual students in special education programs and other matters related to individual students. The Board argued that Section 2(c)(10) applied because a parent’s complaint alleged the use of Just Mercy created an unsafe learning environment for their child, and it was impossible to discuss the curriculum without referring to the student at issue. The PAC, however, found that during closed session the Board only momentarily alluded to an individual student during its discussion.

Since Sections 2(c)(1), 2(c)(4), and 2(c)(10) did not apply, the PAC found that the Board violated OMA. The PAC ordered the Board to disclose to Requestor, and make publicly available, the closed session verbatim recording from its August 7, 2023 meeting. The Board was also ordered to revise its August 7, 2023 closed session minutes to provide a meaningful summary of all matters proposed, deliberated, or decided, and to also disclose the revised minutes to Requestor and make them publicly available.

This opinion is binding only to the parties involved and may be appealed pursuant to State law.