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Schools & School Boards – Civil Rights – FOIA – Executive Session Action

By: S.C. Lawyers Weekly staff//January 13, 2023

Schools & School Boards – Civil Rights – FOIA – Executive Session Action

By: S.C. Lawyers Weekly staff//January 13, 2023

A parent wrote a letter to the respondent-school board, asking the board to reopen the school transfer request window. The day after the board met in executive session, the board chairmen sent the parent a letter, explaining that the parent had met with the chairman and school personnel and that “the answer to your question has remained and continues to be the same,” without explaining what the answer was. In open session, the chairman explained that the decision to respond by letter to the parent’s complaint was “based off the discussion” in executive session. These facts support the circuit court’s finding that the board decided how to respond to the parent’s complaint during executive session.

We affirm the circuit court’s ruling that the board violated the Freedom of Information Act. However, we vacate the circuit court’s order requiring the board to consider and dispose of the parent’s complaint at its next public meeting.

A public body is forbidden from entering executive session without complying with S.C. Code Ann. § 30-4-70(b): “Before going into executive session the public agency shall vote in public on the question and when the vote is favorable, the presiding officer shall announce the specific purpose of the executive session.” Because there is no evidence the board complied with this section, its executive session was improper.

Even if the board had complied with the FOIA’s specific purpose requirement when it retreated into executive session, it could not have taken any vote except to adjourn or resume its public session. § 30-4-70(b). Importantly, the “members of a public body may not commit the public body to a course of action by a polling of members in executive session.”

We further note that the chairman had no authority to send the letter without a majority vote permitting him to do so. Absent constitutional or legislative authority, an individual member of a public body has no authority to act. In general, a public body may act only after the action has been approved by a majority vote of a quorum of its members.

However, the portion of the circuit court’s injunction requiring the board to reconsider the parent’s complaint at its next meeting is not merely an equitable remedy for a FOIA violation, nor is it an instance of a court reviewing a completed legislative act. Rather, it is a judicial decree requiring the board to take specific legislative action. Such an order should only ensue, if at all, by way of mandamus, a cause of action that was not pled or raised by respondent.

Affirmed in part and vacated in part.

Miramonti v. Richland County School District One (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-002-23, 5 pp.) (Garrison Hill, J.) Appealed from Richland County Circuit Court (Robert Hood, J.) Eugene Hamilton Matthews, Kenneth Allen Davis, Charles Boykin and Sedeirdra Lynn Smith for appellants; Cody Smith and Jessica Clancy Crowson for respondent. S.C. App.

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