Open meeting laws make it difficult for school board members to communicate with each other about board business. Yet board members often have questions for clarification before a meeting. Paperless meeting software makes it possible to exchange factual information without violating sunshine laws.

Rigorous rules limit board members’ communication. Emails between board members are so risky that smart school boards ban them entirely. If someone poses a question of fact (which is permitted on school boards), the thread can quickly elicit opinions, and then the board has broken open meeting laws. If more than half the board is on a group email (even if they join in sequentially), they furthermore create a rolling quorum. Texts run the same risk. Accordingly, board portal software – which makes paperless meetings possible – does not provide a more secure version of email or texts. Rather, it gives school boards exactly the tools they need to communicate legally and ethically.

The board portal becomes an electronic bulletin board. A board member can send a question of fact to the superintendent. (As an unelected official, the superintendent enjoys greater freedom in communicating with board members.) The superintendent can post a read-only version of his or her answer on the portal. The superintendent can furthermore provide links to any readings that pertain to the question. He can even link his response and the readings to the agenda for the next meeting.

Now, all the board members can access that communication from the superintendent. After all, it’s likely that more board members than the questioner have wondered about the same issue. None of them, however, can mark up the shared version or forward the superintendent’s response to anyone, in keeping with the law. Rather, each board member can put a virtual post-it on his copy of the shared document. That note-to-self reminds the board member what he (or she) wanted to say about the matter when it arises in the next meeting.

Three qualities of the software make it possible to manage communications in this way. One is the private annotation function. Another is a feature of an online library that the software supports: Any materials stored there can be linked to an agenda. The third is the pièce de résistance: the online library is fully searchable.

  1. Private Annotation. With private annotation, any reader of a shared document can add comments, notes and questions about a posted document so that he or she alone can see it. Those thoughts appear as notes right on the document, but the shared version stays clean and nobody sees each other’s notes. If the board members could see each other’s virtual post-its, they would run the risk of violating open meeting laws.
  2. Links to Library. Good board portal software includes an online archive where the school board can save all manner of documents it may need – legislation, policies, zoning maps, budgets, media reports, minutes of past meetings, RFPs. The archive itself can become a highly organized repository of public records, complying fully with laws governing public records. It’s simple to create links on the agenda, directing the reader to the reading materials referenced. Using this feature, the superintendent can provide links to any readings that inform his response to the board member’s question. Then a simple click of the mouse lets any board member read the connected materials.
  3. Searchability. The best software puts the icing on the cake: All the materials stored in the archive are fully searchable. Indeed a meta-search scans all documents in any format to find usages of a keyword. When the superintendent prepares his response to the board member’s question, he can readily find the facts that he needs.

Let’s say Vincent, a new school board member, wants to know why the district does not have a zero-tolerance policy for bullying. He cannot ask any of his fellow board members in person, lest they chime in with attempts to persuade Vincent to adopt their own approval or disapproval of the status quo. Neither can he ask even one of them over email or text. He does not know that both Amanda and Sayyed, also board members, wonder about the bullying policy, but have not raised the issue.

Vincent can ask the superintendent his question about the policy – in person, over the phone, or by email or text. The superintendent might remember the formation of that policy if he or she was serving at the time it was determined. He or she can also research the issue by conducting keyword searches of the online archive that stores the district’s records. Say the superintendent searches first for “bullying policy” and then for “zero tolerance.” Within seconds, he can find historical records documenting how the decision was made – even minutes of the meeting where it was last discussed. The software can even send him to video footage of that meeting! He or she then crafts the reply to Vincent and posts it – providing links to the research findings – where the entire board can read it.

Amanda and Sayyad will see the superintendent’s thorough answer to their question. The other board members will get a refresher on an issue that is likely to appear on a coming agenda. Sayyad can post a note-to-self on the read-only document: “What about the St. Louis experience?” Each board member can mark his or her own version similarly. Assuming a reconsideration of the bullying policy appears on the agenda for the next meeting, everyone comes prepared with well-considered contributions to the discussion.

The limits on communication between board members need not impede the collective fact-finding that is essential to thorough meeting preparation and other shared goals. The right software for paperless meetings delivers a simple way to hit the sweet spot: School boards can share factual information without creating the private deliberations that open meeting laws forbid.