So you’re ready to invest in board portal software. You might first spot downloadable software on the internet and find it tempting. If you go to a store, another temptation awaits: low-cost “out-of-the-box” software that is easy to install on your hard drive. Large districts have yet another option: in-house IT personnel could program something for just this purpose. Keep looking. All three software sources have left many school boards with buyer’s remorse. Only full-service portal providers catering to school boards have stood the test of time. Considering five crucial factors will direct you to software that meets your long-term needs.
Choose software that supports your public-facing website.
Of course bundling services is more efficient, but its benefits don’t stop there. Having multiple platforms running on the same system prevents the headaches that arise when incompatible formats preclude the easy transfer of information.
If you’re not convinced that you need a public-facing website, you have not experienced the savings in time and labor that it brings. When you post agendas and minutes to comply with sunshine laws, they now reach far more people with less legwork and expense. Americans spend hours each day online, whereas very few saunter past the public library to see what’s new on the bulletin board. While you once walked all over town with a stapler, a roll of tape, and a box of thumbtacks, you can now send out meeting notices with the click of a mouse. That takes less time and requires less staff.
To make sure that a board portal provider will maintain its support of a public-facing website, look for a provider that caters to school boards. If you’re their target market, they’ll remain vigilant about meeting your needs. In 2018, Microsoft discontinued its support of public-facing websites on One Point Online. To the majority of its target market it was not essential. Stranded clients then had to figure out how to “migrate” to another provider, which often required calling in an expensive consultant.
Look for maximal protection from cybercrime.
School boards make prime targets for hackers. They often lack sophisticated protection from attack and they could likely drum up the roughly $51,000 that is the average ransom demanded by international schemers. Added to that, proudly posting board members’ emails on the website gives bad actors just what they need to penetrate the entire school network; they need only send click-bait in an email subject line. That means criminals can see all the salaries, personnel disputes, grades, and medical records that they need to profit from identity theft affecting hundreds or thousands of individual targets.
When it comes to software, there’s security and then there’s security. Some software offers no encryption. Some provides 128-bit encryption. The best available software gives you full 256-bit encryption. It also provides storage on a secure, cloud-based server, not on “the cloud,” which is easy for hackers to get into. (Most popular file-sharing sites store documents on the cloud.)
Texting on the apps that come pre-loaded on smartphones also dangles candy before any nefarious actor who wants to see your board’s business. Go for board portal software that comes bundled with an alternative texting platform that is secure.
Buyer beware: There are usually no ongoing security updates on out-of-the-box software. An in-house IT department generally lacks the staffing and sophistication that it takes to keep an eye on international threats to cybersecurity. A good full-service portal provider monitors cybercrime updates to stay a step ahead of the bad guys. It even conducts security audits and penetration tests.
Find the Right Tools to Boost Transparency.
Consistently subject to public scrutiny, school boards cannot afford even the appearance of secrecy. To demonstrate your commitment to transparency, seek out software that supports these capacities:
- Simple feedback forms posted on the website solicit citizens’ input – even between meetings, when communication from the school board traditionally “goes dark.”
- You have always somehow put out minutes of meetings, but since you’re online, why not post video footage of meetings?
- Top board portal software can even store public records on an archive that anyone can access by just clicking on an icon. That means that maps, laws, policies, spreadsheets, historical documents, reports, and more are easy for journalists and historians to find.
- If that archive is searchable, researchers get the royal treatment. BoardDocs software even makes it possible to conduct a single-step, keyword-based metasearch of archived materials. The single search peruses all files simultaneously, even if they’re in multiple formats.
Look beyond the price tag.
Costs that arise when using board portal software can come as a surprise. School boards, which follow set pre-planned budgets, can’t afford such surprises. Both low-cost, out-of-the-box software and programs produced by an internal IT team bring with them hidden costs. Look for these features to reduce long-term costs and keep them predictable:
- Training Support. After the sale, the board and staff have to figure out how to use their new software. Will the seller provide training videos free of charge? If not, costly consultants will happily lead you through the transition. Also, staff retire or leave. Board members rotate off the board. With turnover, new people always need training from the ground up. When a replacement steps in, how will they know how to leverage all the powers of the software?
Providers differ in what training they offer. A full-service software company provides videos and webinars to train anyone who is new to the software – all for a flat annual subscription fee. If an in-house IT department builds the software, training users might be low on their list of priorities. Out-of-the box software companies typically provide no training whatsoever.
- Customer Service. When something goes wrong, are you left stranded? Off-the-shelf software companies may offer customer service between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. Monday through Friday. Even within those limited hours, they often send customers to voice mail. BoardDocs, a Diligent brand, not only offers support 24/7 but even guarantees a live human on the other end within a matter of minutes. Diligent has even won awards for its best-in-class service record.
- Free Unlimited Storage. Some board portal software includes room to store documents, but only up to a certain limit. After that point, they charge a hefty fee for added volume. Look for free unlimited storage.
Make sure the software keeps confidential information safely segregated from other materials.
We’ve all done it: cut and paste the list of addresses from an email sent out before the last meeting, only to remember too late that a one-time guest was on that list. You’ve already hit “send” on an email intended for board members’ eyes only. Human error accounts for the majority of data breaches. As the school board handles highly sensitive information, it is essential that board materials not be mixed with other files or get into the wrong hands.
To prevent this disastrous mistake from happening even once, look for software with role-based authorizations. Such software makes different versions of documents accessible to portal users with differing roles – say, board member, administrator, or member of the public.
To select the very best board portal software for your school board, factor in these five considerations. The choice will serve you well not just now, but for years to come.