In early February, the Appellate division in Kean Federation of Teachers v. Morell ruled that employees and prospective employees are entitled to receive a “Rice Notice” any time a matter involving their employment is on a board’s agenda, regardless of whether the board will actually be discussing the individual. The opinion has had a ripple effect state-wide, as districts grapple with the addressing the ruling.
Rice v. Union Cty. Reg’l High Sch. Bd. of Educ. established the ‘Rice Notice’ requirement mandates Boards provide advance notice if a board intends to discuss the employment of an employee. Kean Federation of Teachers v. Morell may modify that requirement slightly.
Kean University’s Board of Trustees adopted an employment procedure in regard to the renewal of an existing faculty member. Under the procedure, the university president forwarded renewal and nonrenewal recommendations to the personnel committee. The personnel committee then discussed the president’s recommendations in a committee meeting in order to reach a consensus on the individuals who were going to be offered continued employment. The committee then created a consensus report, which was forwarded to the full board for consideration.
In December 2014, using this procedure, Dr. Valera Hascup, a Kean University faculty member, was not recommended for renewal for the 2015-2016 school year. While the university did individually notify Hascup of the nonrenewal recommendation, it did not provide her with advance notice of the meeting where that recommendation was to be presented to the board.
Following her nonrenewal, Hascup filed suit asserting that the board violated the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) by failing to provide her with a “Rice Notice” advising that the board was considering taking action concerning her employment. In response, the university asserted that notice is only required where the board convenes in executive session to deliberate employment recommendations. According to the university, there was no obligation to convene in closed session because the board did not have a need to deliberate on the employment recommendations and no privacy interests were implicated; therefore, no Rice Notice was required.
Impacting Personnel Matters
The Kean decision found that Kean’s procedure attempted to sidestep OPMA and denied the public the right to observe all phases of the board’s deliberation and decision-making process. The court stated, “[s]ending a Rice notice to all employees whose employment status may be adversely affected is the only means of creating an environment in which the members of public bodies are free to carry out their responsibilities in a manner that guarantees to the public that their ultimate decisions are the product of a thoughtful and deliberative process.”
The decision hold that “Rice notices must be provided in advance of any meeting at which a personnel decision may occur. This protocol provides the board with the flexibility to discuss matters in executive session when necessary and affords the affected employees the opportunity to request that any proposed discussion occur publicly.”
How This Decision Impacts Employees & Districts
In light of the decision, many districts are providing liberal notice to employees to ensure they are aware that there may be an instances where aspects of their employment could be discussed. As such, members have indicated they have received a ‘blanket’ Rice notice to cover any instance where a discussion could be provided. Often these notices are sent electronically and may simply reference any and all scheduled Board meetings. By and large, districts, are however, still providing paper notices for more ‘traditional’ or formalized proceedings.