Wisconsin Supreme Court Rules on Appleton School District Open Meetings Law

by Ruder Ware

In a unanimous and much-anticipated decision released today, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that a committee of school personnel formed to review materials for a high school course under a procedure set forth in school board rules is a “governmental body” subject to the Wisconsin Open Meetings Law.

The case (Krueger v. Appleton Area School District Board of Education, 2017 WI 70), involved a committee that was formed by two department heads in response to an objection to a course reading list lodged by the father of a student in the class.  The father wanted to attend the committee’s meetings, but his request was denied.  He filed suit claiming that the committee was subject to the Open Meetings Law.  The circuit court and the Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the school board, finding that the committee was an “ad hoc” group, not a “governmental body”, and so was not subject to the Open Meetings Law. 

Crucial to the Court’s decision was the school board had a rule that required selection of educational materials be delegated “to the professionally trained and certified personnel employed by the school system”.  In the Court’s view, this was the board’s formal authorization for the department in question to review and recommend educational materials for board approval according to procedures laid out in a board-approved “assessment, curriculum, and instruction handbook”.

A governmental entity is subject to the Open Meetings Law if it is (1) “a state or local agency, board, commission, committee, council, department or public body corporate and politic” that is (2) “created by constitution, statute, ordinance, rule or order . . . or a formally constituted subunit of any of the foregoing”. 

The Court concluded that the school review committee was a “committee” for purposes of the Open Meetings Law because it had defined membership charged with reviewing and selecting educational materials for board approval, as authorized by the board through its rule and handbook.  The Court also concluded that the committee was created "by rule" because the rule and the handbook that the school board had adopted delegated authority to district employees to form review committees.

We will be analyzing this case in depth and will write further on this subject.  In the meantime, however, there are several points to consider:

  1. While this case deals with a school district, it is applicable to all units of government that may have or may set up committees, subcommittees, or other groups in a similar manner or under similar authority.
  2. The Court acknowledged that the creation of a governmental body is not triggered “merely by any deliberate meetings involving governmental business between two or more officials”, and that loosely organized ad hoc gatherings of government employees, without more, are not governmental bodies.
  3. As noted above, the district’s rule and handbook were very important to the Court’s decision.  The applicability of this decision to a particular local governmental entity’s governing rules and procedures should be analyzed.
  4. The Court, in closing, noted the district’s argument that subjecting committees like the one involved here would adversely affect the functioning of government.  The Court stated that “mere inconvenience” cannot exempt a body from the Open Meetings Law, and that such concerns should be addressed to the legislature.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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