Some Legal Basics for New Board Members

Joel Gerring

By Joel Gerring, MASB Assistant Legal Counsel

DashBoard, Nov. 16, 2016

For many folks reading this, you may be taking in your very first edition of MASB’s DashBoard. If so, congratulations! You’ve been elected by your community to help shape the future of your school district. You may also be asking yourself “what now?” Fortunately, your Association is here to assist, and the MASB Legal Department is only a phone call away.

As a new school board member it is easy to feel overwhelmed, especially when it comes to understanding and processing the various regulations, laws and rules schools are subject to. School board members are not expected to be experts in everything from school finance law to department of education regulations, but acquiring a basic understanding of the broader legal landscape is recommended. Naturally, over time your knowledgebase and comfort level will grow. What follows is a brief description of four of the more important laws that school boards must be cognizant of.

The Revised School Code

This is the source of your board’s authority. It provides school boards with the general power to educate students, provide for their welfare, buy and sell property, staff the district, make financial decisions and enter into agreements. The Revised School Code also assigns the board specific responsibility for setting the curriculum, hiring a superintendent, levying taxes, negotiating with employees and handling bussing, among other things.

The Open Meetings Act

The Open Meetings Act is the law that demands that school boards conduct business in an environment that is open and accessible to the public at-large. It dictates that decisions made by the board be reached in a forum that is accessible to all, and that the community receive notice of when and where meetings will be hold. The OMA demands that individual members of the public always be given an opportunity to address the board and provides for very limited, specific circumstances in which the board may meet behind closed doors in order to review a matter. Voting must always take place during an open meeting.

The Public Employment Relations Act

The Public Employment Relations Act governs how a district can collectively bargain with its “bargaining unit” employees. The main thing to understand concerning PERA is that it demands that all bargaining take place “in good faith.” Your bargaining team should be familiar with the basic tenants of good faith negotiations, which include everything from scheduling meetings that are convenient for both parties to accepting the bargaining unit’s negotiator as the exclusive bargainer, and not bypassing that individual or undermining their authority.

Conflict of Interest

The conflict of interest laws that govern school board members are among the most misunderstood. These laws do not list each and every potential conflict of interest that an individual must avoid, but rather simply indicate that board members must disclose conflicts when they perceive them and abstain from any vote where they have reason to believe a conflict exists. The law essentially leaves the identification of a potential conflict of interest to the discretion of the individual; although the law does presume a conflict any time there is a direct financial interest involved for either the board member at issue or a family member.

These are just a few of the more significant laws that impact school districts and that school board members should have a passing familiarity with. MASB has a wealth of guidance and information related to navigating the statutes, rules and regulations that public schools in Michigan are subject to, and our Legal Team is always here to provide advice and guidance. You can reach us at:

Brad Banasik

Legal Counsel/Director of Labor Relations & Policy or 517.327.5929

Joel Gerring

Assistant Legal Counsel or 517.327.5922

Kacie Kefgen

Assistant Director of Labor Relations & Legal Services or 517.327.5914

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