Although boards of education can only act when they are meeting as a collective body, the actions of individual board members can result in the breach of an agreement reached by the entire Board. A recent decision from New York, involving a confidentiality provision in a settlement agreement between the Elmira City School District Board of Education and a former employee, illustrates the risk to a board of education from the behavior of individual board members.

In Gosden v. Elmira City School District, 90 A.D.3d 1202 (2011), the board and a former employee, Robert Gosden, had reached a settlement agreement concerning a dispute over improperly paid monies for accrued leave upon his retirement. As part of the agreement, both sides agreed to a confidentiality agreement concerning the dispute and settlement. In 2008, two years after the agreement was reached, two individual Board members, angry that Gosden’s current employer had been contracted by the school district to provide financial responsibility training to Board members, were quoted in a newspaper as saying that Gosden had admitted to wrongdoing concerning his retirement payout. The board members later repeated similar comments at a board meeting.

Although the actual agreement had been made public pursuant to a Freedom of Information request, the court concluded that the Elmira Board of Education had breached the terms of the agreement based on the comments of its two members. Mr. Gosden was now free to proceed against the Elmira board of education with its breach of contract claim for damages.