In Coleman v. Parkland School District, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court narrowly construed recent Sunshine Act amendments addressing when a school board may amend a previously published meeting agenda. This decision will have significant ramifications for school boards and other local governmental bodies required to comply with the Sunshine Act. The ruling substantially restricts the ability for a public entity to add new agenda items at a public meeting not previously included in the meeting agenda published at least 24 hours before that meeting.
In 2021, the Pennsylvania General Assembly amended the Sunshine Act to require school boards to publicly post agendas at least 24 hours in advance of their scheduled public meetings. These amendments, however, allowed school boards to add items to their published agendas after the 24-hour posting period in certain limited instances, according to Section 712.1 of the act:
- Emergency business to respond to a clear and present danger to life or property
- De minimis business arising in that last 24 hours that does not involve the expenditure of funds or the entering into a contract
- De minimis business raised during the meeting by a resident or taxpayer that does not involve the expenditure of funds or entering into a contract
- The school board, by a majority vote, adds something to the published agenda for official action at the beginning of meeting
In Coleman, the Commonwealth Court was asked to decide whether Section 712.1 of the Sunshine Act allowed a school board to add the ratification of a teachers’ collective bargaining agreement to its published agenda. The school board had not listed the approval of the teachers’ contract on its published agenda, because it learned the teachers voted to ratify the collective bargaining agreement shortly before the start of the meeting. Upon learning of this information, the school board approved a motion at the meeting to add the contract approval to its agenda, and thereafter held a second vote to approve the teachers’ contract. A school district resident challenged the lawfulness of the school board’s vote arguing the Sunshine Act did not allow the adding of this agenda item. The Common Pleas Court rejected the resident’s argument; however, on appeal, the Commonwealth Court ruled the school board violated the Sunshine Act.
The Commonwealth Court held that the Sunshine Act only offers three exceptions to the general prohibition that a school board to act on matters not previously listed in its meeting agenda:
- Emergency business
- De minimis business arising in the last 24 hours
- De minimis business raised by a resident/taxpayer during a meeting
The Commonwealth Court explained the provision in Section 712.1 authorizing school boards to vote to amend their published agendas did not create a fourth exception, instead that language explained the procedural mechanism of how to publicly amend a meeting agenda for one of the three permissible exceptions. Because the ratification of a teachers’ contract did not constitute emergency or de minimis business, the Commonwealth Court held the Sunshine Act did not permit the school board to add its approval to the school board’s published agenda.
The Coleman decision directly contradicts the previous understanding of what was permissible under the Sunshine Act. Going forward, unless this decision is reversed, school boards can only vote to add action items to their published agenda within 24 hours of a meeting for purposes of emergency business or a de minimis business that does not involve expending funds or entering a contract. School districts still have the discretion to update published agendas to add or remove items at least 24 hours before the meeting. However, agenda changes made less than 24 hours before a meeting must be limited to the items discussed above.
If you have any questions regarding the Sunshine Act or the Coleman decision, please feel free to reach out to any of Saxton & Stump’s Education attorneys – Jeff Litts, Rhonda Lord, Ben Pratt or Carrie Evans Wilson.