One of our board members would like to invite the board and partners to a holiday gathering at his house. Can we do this without violating the public meeting laws? What are the pros and cons?
Your board is OK legally to go to a private social gathering with more than a quorum of the board members present. You should all police yourselves and not talk about district business. It is a good thing for board members to get to know each other better by having these kinds of events/conversation. Most people who work with boards support this concept.
That said, there is a legitimate concern about the perceptions and possible criticism from the public. You have to decide if you are being held hostage, or being bullied by, the public’s overly critical stance on any gathering of board members and the benefits outweigh the possibility of the public’s negative reaction -- or whether their concern is justified.
From my personal experience perspective there were times on my board when we could not have a quorum of board members in a room at one time if it wasn't posted - social event or not - without making negative headlines. After a few years things calmed down and we did attend semi-public things (a staff member's retirement party, a fund-raiser for high school scholarships) and even all sat together at two tables. Then, just before I left the board, we even braved a dinner at a board member's house and were surprised - shocked - and, yes, even a little disappointed when no one seemed to care enough to write newspaper articles or nasty letters to the editor about it. Times had calmed down enough.
A board I worked with a while back was having a rough patch (tension between board and superintendent, lots of criticism in the press). They couldn't possibly have a social gathering without drawing suspicion of an illegal meeting. Three of them plus the superintendent drove in a car to the OSBA convention. All five board members plus the superintendent went to dinner together (petrified someone would be critical). Afterwards they told me it was clearly worth it because the conversations they had in the car and at dinner (NOT about district business, but about their lives, history, etc.) were extremely important in building respect for each other. They are still a team. Getting to know each other better outside of board meetings can be a very good thing.
Here is some material from the Attorney General’s manual (or see page 116 of the hard copy) on the topic:
Purely social gatherings of the members of a governing body are not covered by the law. The Court of Appeals held that social gatherings of a school board, at which members sometimes discussed "what's going on at the schools," did not violate the Public Meetings Law. The purpose of the meeting triggers the requirements of the law. However, a purpose to deliberate on any matter of official policy or administration may arise during a social gathering and lead to a violation. Members constituting a quorum must avoid any discussions of official business during such a gathering. And, they should be aware that some citizens may perceive social gatherings as merely a subterfuge for avoiding the Public Meetings Law.