Multiple school districts and county offices of education have recently received California Public Records Act or Freedom of Information Act requests for copies of board members’ “surety bonds.” The request may claim that all public officials, including elected board members, are required to obtain a surety bond and may state that the district or COE is obligated to send a copy of the bond to the requestor. This has understandably raised questions for local educational agencies, who likely did not find any such requirement in their policies or practices.
What is a surety bond?
Generally speaking, a surety bond is a guarantee under which a surety company promises to pay an obligee, if the person for whom the bond is issued fails to perform certain obligations stated in the bond.
Are school board or county board members in California required to have surety bonds?
No. Some states appear to have surety bond requirements for governing board members, but California has no requirement for school board or county board of education members to file a surety bond. School districts in California must have a liability insurance policy to provide coverage in the event of a claim against a board member, instead of individual bonds for board members.
As noted in CSBA’s model Board Bylaw 9260, the governing board must provide insurance necessary to protect board members and employees while acting within the scope of their office or employment in accordance with Education Code section 35208. Section 35208 requires governing boards to insure the district for liability for death, personal injury or damage/loss of property, and to insure the personal liability of board members and district officers and employees for damages caused by their negligent act or omission when acting within the scope of their office or employment.
Why are school districts receiving these requests?
There appear to be ongoing campaigns in multiple states to influence school board decisions by claiming school board members will be personally liable and forced to pay complainants money from surety bonds for decisions the complainants object to. A website encouraging this type of campaign to oppose COVID-19 related restrictions, “Bonds for the Win,” states that “[t]he Public Official is personally liable for each and every claim that is filed against their Surety Bond. He only has two choices now. Listen to our demands and change or pay us the full amount of his surety bond.”
Can boards be forced to change their policies in response to these requests?
No. The threat to hold board members personally liable and recover funds against a surety bond is not a valid legal claim, and board members do not need to alter board decisions based on this novel method of public comment. Board members should review Board Bylaw 9260 for information regarding personal liability for their actions as board members.
Please note that the information provided here by CSBA is for informational purposes and is not legal advice. Please contact your district or county office of education’s legal counsel, or CSBA’s District and County Office of Education Legal Services, for legal questions related to this information.