Given all that graduating seniors have gone through with the COVID pandemic, a group of parents in Nutmeg have been working since the fall on “Project Super-Duper Graduation” (PS-DG). The members of the Nutmeg Board of Education are generally supportive of parent efforts, but these parents have been particularly headstrong and unwise in their planning for an after-graduation party. Without consulting the Board of Education or Mr. Superintendent, the PS-DG parents scheduled the after-graduation party at the priciest venue in the Nutmeg environs. With Board intervention, PS-DG parents initiated a scholarship program so that any graduating senior can attend the after-graduation party irrespective of family resources. But then the PS-DG parents caused more concern last month by contracting with a limousine service to provide students a fancy ride to the after-graduation party venue, again at significant cost to the students and their families.
Given these concerns, Bob Bombast, veteran member of the Nutmeg Board of Education, demanded that the Board put the PS-DG parents plans on the Board agenda and invite them to a public discussion of their questionable decision-making. Ms. Chairperson was happy to oblige, and the Board held that discussion with the PS-DG parents last week.
“So, what experience do you have in event planning?” Bob jumped right in after the PS-DG parents were introduced. Paul Parent, the nominal leader of the PS-DG parents, responded to Bob by saying that the planning group for PS-DG was simply a collection of parents who wanted the best for their children. But Bob continued on with confrontational questions about what he thought was the group’s insensitivity to how much this event was going to cost families.
When Bob exhausted that line of questioning, he raised issues of potential liability. Bob asked how much insurance the group had obtained to cover them and the school district if someone were injured at the after-graduation party and sued. Paul Parent responded that the group had not bothered to get insurance, which would have just been an additional expense. Besides, he said, since PS-DG parents were acting on behalf of the seniors graduating from Nutmeg Memorial High School, presumably the party and those parents involved in its planning would be covered under the insurance policies carried by the Nutmeg Public Schools.
Bob rolled his eyes, and fellow Board member Penny Pincher gasped audibly. Ms. Chairman tried to keep the tone light, and she told Paul that the PS-DG parents might want to look into getting some insurance for the after-party. Bob went a step further, however, and he proposed that the Board create a parent committee to continue planning and to oversee the post-graduation party. Given the concerns the Board had over the actions of the PS-DG parents to date, the Board promptly passed Bob’s motion. Ms. Chairman then thanked the PS-DG parents for their efforts on behalf of the students and expressed the hope that Paul Parent and the others might be appointed to serve on the new Committee.
Before the Board members could appoint members to that planning committee at its next meeting, these efforts were thrown a curveball. There was a power outage at Nutmeg Memorial High School the other day, and school was canceled. When Mr. Superintendent checked the calendar, he realized that now graduation would be held on the 179th day of instruction, short of the 180 school sessions required by law. Would the plans for graduation have to be scrapped and a new graduation date established?
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Happily, the Nutmeg Board of Education will not need to change the graduation date. In accordance with Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-16l, school boards have been able for over twenty years to set a firm graduation date at the beginning of the school year as long as that date was no earlier than the 185thday noted in the school calendar adopted at the beginning of the school year. Moreover, if a board of education set a firm graduation date after April 1 in a given year, that date for graduation could be maintained irrespective of school cancellations later.
In 2019, the General Assembly simplified these rules, and now boards of education can simply set a firm graduation date at the beginning of the school year and be done with it. Section 1 of Public Act 19-195 amended Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-16l to provide simply that “Notwithstanding any provision of the general statutes, a local or regional board of education may establish for any school year a firm graduation date for students in grade twelve which is no earlier than the one hundred eightieth day noted in the school calendar originally adopted by the board for that school year.” Therefore, the cancellation of that school day in Nutmeg did not affect the scheduling of graduation or the apparently-extravagant after-graduation party.
That said, the Nutmeg Board of Education does need to address two major issues that arise with the planning and oversight of the post-graduation party.
The first issue is the question of liability and insurance. Parents often plan events related to school activities. The Softball Boosters, for example, may hold a car wash to fund donations to the Softball team, or a group of parents may plan for a safe after-Prom party. In working with parents on such events, school officials must be sure to clarify the status of the event. Is the activity a school-sponsored event or it is a private parent initiative?
This determination is important because of obligations that boards of education may have. “Any volunteer approved by a board of education to carry out a duty prescribed by said board and under the direction of a certificated staff member” is indemnified against claims made against them in accordance with Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-235 (the same indemnification statute that protects board of education members and school employees) for actions they take in that capacity. Since the superintendent is the chief executive officer of the board, we cannot reliably say that this protection depends upon a formal board vote. Moreover, this provision is remedial legislation that may be broadly construed to confer protection. Given the risk of ambiguity in a particular situation (e.g., are the parent volunteers working with the principal; is the activity being publicized through the school?), school officials should either clearly separate the parent activity from the school or, as Nutmeg did here, adopt the activity as a school activity. In the latter case, it will be crucially important to assure that the district has appropriate insurance to cover liability claims involving such activities.
Finally, the action in Nutmeg to appoint a committee to continue planning for the after-graduation party has legal significance under the Freedom of Information Act. The FOIA provides that committees created by a public agency (such as a board of education) are themselves public agencies, subject to the FOIA rules regarding posting of their meetings, public access to those meetings, and related record-keeping requirements. This is true even when, as here, the board-created committee is composed wholly of persons who are not members of the board of education. Accordingly, whenever a board of education appoints a parent or citizen’s advisory committee, it must assure that the committee members receive training and support in fulfilling their responsibilities under the FOIA.