School Board Meetings Then and Now

It’s 1968. Plopped across a brown-and-yellow plaid couch, a boy and his sister stare at The Jetsons on the black-and-white TV set with rabbit ears while their mother makes Hamburger Helper for dinner. Their father will come home in the wood-paneled Ford station wagon, arriving too late for dinner; he’s at the monthly meeting of the district school board.

Fast forward to 2018. That same kid is now a father attending a school board meeting while his partner takes their toddlers to Panera Bread in the Prius, hoping they have gluten-free dinner options. Watching The Jetsons did not prepare our time traveler for the dizzying change of scenery over the past 50 years. Hybrids are not flying saucers, and Jane Jetson’s pipe-and-slippers routine looks prehistoric to many modern women. Only the meeting venue has stayed the same; the high school gym still looks and smells like a high school gym.

If today’s school board member could talk to his father, however, they’d find that only the location had stayed the same. The old-fashioned school board meeting would seem arduous and inefficient by today’s standards. From receipt of the board packet to distribution of the meeting minutes, it is now possible for a school board meeting to accomplish more, keep confidential material safer, reach more of the public, eat up less staff time and leave a far lighter footprint on the environment.

Posting the Agenda

Famously open school board meetings are woven into the fiber of American culture; inviting the public to meetings is nothing new. To do so, the board chair must publicize the place and time of the meeting and the agenda within a week or two of the meeting itself. Fulfilling this obligation once meant publishing the meeting announcement and the agenda in a designated section of the local paper as well as physically posting notices in public spaces, such as Town Hall. While a school board may still honor such traditions, it can usually satisfy the requirement to apprise the public by posting the meeting details and the agenda on the school’s website. The school board members themselves can also “receive” the agenda on the board portal; gone are the Xerox machines, the stamps and the administrative assistant’s overtime toil.

The Board Packet

Members of the school board need to receive supplementary materials to read before the meeting. Traditionally, the job of assembling these materials into a board packet, copying them, collating them and mailing them to each recipient consumed the better part of a 40-hour week for the chair’s administrative assistant. She can now collect and distribute those same materials with a few keystrokes in less than an afternoon.

Digital dissemination vastly increases the security of confidential documents. Mailing hard copy spreads paper versions of sometimes sensitive information into board members’ living rooms, briefcases and coffee shops – where they would be easy to read, or to steal.

An old-school visitor would still harbor doubts: “Isn’t this ‘internet’ open to far more eyes still?” The answer is “no.” If the school’s website is on a sophisticated portal, only authorized users can access documents. In this case, document-level access could be limited to school board members through a role-based authorization system.

Using a secure board portal is not tantamount to posting information on the Web for all to see; not only can the general public not access documents designated for board members, but hackers cannot get into the site. Board portals offer phenomenally tighter security than email or file-sharing sites, which hackers adore for their relative penetrability. Old-school board meetings put the same documents at greater risk by spreading untraceable paper copies outside a central office.

Digital distribution of the board packet offers more advantages still:

  1. Fewer trees are sacrificed.
  2. A deeper, wider cache of background materials can easily be made available to board members. Good board portals allow unlimited storage of documents and video (news reports, legislation, past meeting minutes, etc.). The new agenda can provide links to relevant documents, which are already stored in the archive as part of continuing curating performed by a board librarian. (For that matter, the chair’s administrative assistant could maintain the archive – in less time than it once took to copy and mail out materials.)
  3. The attached documents are searchable. Top portals allow the user to search for keywords in all of the documents stored there.

Collecting hard copies of documents for the board packet, copying them and mailing them satisfies nostalgia while using more labor time to create a less-productive meeting.

The Meeting

At the school board meeting, the paperless meeting makes the discussion more informed and adaptable. Say the board is deliberating whether or not to enter into an exchange agreement with a high school in Spain. The board packet includes a 10-page article from Education Week covering the salient concerns. Let’s say a board member wants to talk about liability issues. What happens next?

With a paper packet, the chair might lose her grasp on the flow of the meeting at just that moment. The entire board would spend five to 10 minutes riffling through the 10-page article until someone found the paragraph on liability. Someone would finally exclaim: “It’s on the bottom of page 7!” Then, there would be more shuffling as everybody turned to page 7.

With a digital packet, the meeting would stay on track with ease. A designated board secretary could perform a keyword search on the article to find the paragraph on page 7 in seconds. She could then direct everybody’s attention to that spot. The group could even be looking at the text projected onto a shared screen at the front of the room.

An unexpected turn in the discussion makes the digital packet all the more essential:

Upon reading the paragraph, another board member remarks, “But I heard there are new laws in Europe that would increase our legal responsibility for a Spanish student.”

With a paper packet, the discussion would have to be tabled at this juncture. The job of additional research would be given to an individual or a committee, and talks would resume at the next meeting. A month would be lost. If the offer from Spain had a time limit, our school board might have to miss the opportunity. If laptops had been permitted at the paper-packet meeting, it would not have improved things by much. Separate Google searches by all of the board members would assuredly derail the meeting and doubtfully yield results leading to agreement or command of the relevant material.

A board with a board portal would have a chance of salvaging the meeting’s flow, finding the needed information and making a timely decision. To investigate the new European law, the designated secretary could perform a keyword search of all of the archived material. If the archive was thorough and current, he would find something on the new EU regulations. The board could vote on the measure then and there, armed with the knowledge needed.

Follow-up

After the meeting, the board secretary must compose the minutes, distribute them to board members and post them in a public place. At one time, that would take a typewriter, a copier, some postage, a cover letter to the local paper and a walk down to Town Hall with thumbtacks and tape. A word processor and email would obviate most of these cumbersome props, though the trek to Town Hall with thumbtacks might still be needed – if he doesn’t have a friend in the building willing to print out the email attachment and put it on the bulletin board.

Why take so many steps when he could do the job better in less time? With a secure board portal, he could check the minutes off his list before he finishes one cup of coffee. First, the portal software could instantly convert his notes from the meeting into minutes. Then, he could get them to the board and to the public with one click of the mouse, posting them directly onto the portal itself. The board and the public could all access the minutes soon after the meeting had concluded. He could even attach video footage of the meeting.

Conclusion

School boards have nothing to lose and everything to gain by using technology before, during and after their meetings. Quickly and purposefully, the chair can provide the agenda in advance, compile supplementary materials without the customary hassles, navigate the meeting like a pro and post minutes within hours. Paper served a purpose at one time, but so did shag carpet. Smart school boards are embracing the paperless meeting.


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