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The Boulder Monitor v. Jefferson High School District No. 1

Supreme Court of Montana

January 9, 2014

THE BOULDER MONITOR, Plaintiff and Appellee,
v.
JEFFERSON HIGH SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 1, Defendant and Appellant. [1]

SYNOPSIS OF THE CASE

In a 4-1 decision, the Montana Supreme Court overturned a District Court ruling that the School Board of the Jefferson High School District had violated the Montana Open Meeting laws.

The District had formed a subcommittee consisting of three of its members to meet, consider budget issues, and report back to the full Board with recommendations. The three members of the subcommittee met on July 13, 2012, to consider the salary that should be recommended for a vacant principal position. A fourth member of the Board attended the subcommittee meeting, but did not participate in the consensus that the subcommittee members reached as to the salary recommendation to make to the Board. The subcommittee reported its recommendation to the Board at the Board's next regular meeting.

The Boulder Monitor is a weekly newspaper that covers Jefferson County. The publisher of the Monitor had actual notice of the July 13 subcommittee meeting, but decided to not cover it because it was not a meeting of the full School Board. The Monitor sued the School District alleging that the presence of the fourth Board member resulted in a quorum of the School Board and that the subcommittee had eliminated two of the candidates for the open principal position.

The District Court granted summary judgment for the Monitor, determining that the "critical facts" of the case were undisputed and that the presence of the fourth Board member on July 13 resulted in a quorum of the full School Board. The District Court further determined that it was undisputed that the School Board acted at the July 13 meeting to eliminate two of the applicants for the principal position. The District Court determined that the School District had violated the open meeting and public participation requirements of Montana law because the notice of the July 13 meeting had not disclosed that it would be a meeting of a quorum of the School Board, and because the meeting discussed topics other than budget issues. The District Court awarded attorney fees to the Monitor.

On appeal the Supreme Court determined that the "critical facts" relied upon by the District Court were each expressly disputed by the School District. Therefore, because there were genuine issues of material fact, the District Court was precluded as a matter of law from granting summary judgment to the Monitor. The Supreme Court additionally determined that the District Court erred in holding that the mere presence of the fourth member at the July 13 subcommittee meeting automatically transformed it into a quorum of the full School Board.

The dissenting Justice concluded that the fourth Board member participated in the deliberations at the July 13 subcommittee meeting by asking questions during the meeting and then making clarification to the notes or minutes after the meeting. The dissent concluded that the attendance, participation, and consideration of School Board business by four Board members was sufficient for the District Court to find a violation of the Open Meeting laws.


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