The thought of entering a Board of Education meeting without a board packet under your arm may evoke fears of feeling unprepared, practically naked. Nothing could be further from the truth. Managed well, a paperless, software-driven meeting empowers a Board of Education to get more done in less time than its pencil-and-paper predecessor. With paperless meetings, a Board of Education works smarter, not harder.

Let’s say an upcoming Board of Education meeting will have one predetermined topic for discussion and a vote: the elimination of statewide requirements that high school students take at least two years of a foreign language. Now let’s consider how this meeting would be prepared and executed with – and without – the benefits of board software.

Before the Meeting

Before the meeting, the board chair must compile and disseminate the agenda and any materials that the board needs to read to be prepared for the meeting. Let’s assume that an old-school board chair (Sir Inkius Scribblelots) is running the meeting with paper copies of documents. Outside of meetings, Sir Inkius has recently started using a word processor, email and the internet (which he calls “the interweb”). In a parallel universe, his counterpart (Lady Sparticus Excelicus) is preparing for the same meeting – but with board portal software that obviates the need for paper materials at the meetings altogether. From start to finish, Lady Excelicus accomplishes more with less hassle than her old-school friend Sir Scribblelots.

Creating the Agenda

  1. Getting input. Both board chairs send emails to their board members – and anyone else whose ideas they are soliciting. Sir Scribblelots adds a draft agenda as an attachment to the emails, asking recipients to send it back with their comments added in the margins. Lady Excelicus directs them to a draft agenda that is posted on the online board portal. Role-based access means that the draft agenda appears when they visit the portal, but it doesn’t appear when others visit it. The public would be confused if they read an incomplete, preliminary document before seeing the final agenda. If one month’s agenda calls for public input into its crafting, a simple click makes it appear in their view of the portal screen also. If Lady Excelicus wants public input on future draft agendas, she can simply change the authorization levels with one click to make that possible.

Lady Excelicus now enjoys two advantages over Sir Scribblelots: Incorporating all of the edits is far easier for her, and she is keeping state data secure from cyberattack, whereas Sir Scribblelots essentially invites hackers to use his emails as a gateway to sensitive state data.

First, Ease of Editing: Lady Excelicus will soon see all of the notations on the agenda – from every single source – on a single page, whereas Sir Scribblelots will have to compare notations written on, say, 10 different copies of the draft agenda (if there were 10 recipients to the email). The software used by Lady Excelicus allows her to identify the author of each point of marginalia, as their comments are color-coded, in case she needs to follow up with questions to the author, whereas many of the 10 copies examined by Sir Scribblelots probably won’t have the contributor’s identifying information in plain view. (He presumably downloaded the documents, losing the senders’ names from their email addresses. He mutters under his breath that next time he’ll name each resulting file with a label that identifies the author.)

Second, Cybersecurity: Lady Excelicus has not incurred any of the security risks that accompany email attachments. Even if Sir Scribblelots’s attachment itself (the draft agenda) contained no personal identifying information (PIN, e.g., Social Security numbers, salaries, bank account numbers, or medical histories of students, vendors or staff), a hacker could use the email attachment to access PINs stored in other networks associated with his recipients’ email addresses.

Sir Scribblelots may congratulate himself that he takes extra precautions to secure his documents, but he does not protect them, and he may even heighten his exposure to hackers. He may seek shelter in email addresses issued by the state education network. Because they are linked to the state’s network (a candy store of PINs), these emails are actually more desirable targets for hackers than personal email addresses. If Sir Scribblelots used unaffiliated email addresses but posted the draft agenda on a file-sharing site like Google Docs, the agenda itself would be easy to hack. Only secure board portal software provides the high level of encryption that is needed.

  1. Creating a Final Agenda. We’ve seen that Sir Scribblelots now faces a mess, as he pulls up one after another unidentified document in his quest to create a final version, whereas Lady Excelicus is steering the ship with ease as she focuses on one master document containing all of the added notations, each containing information identifying its author. After an hour (for her) or three hours (for him), they arrive at the same agenda. The “New Business” section will contain only the topic they suggested (eliminating the high school foreign-language requirement), but the discussion will include three points: budgetary implications, college admission consequences and staffing ramifications. Either of them can type up the final agenda in a word processing program without a hitch.

Sir Scribblelots stumbles, though, in providing access to supplementary materials. Todiscuss these items, the Board of Education needs to read background documents: current policies on foreign-language requirements, union agreements protecting foreign-language teachers, past budgets that itemized the cost of foreign-language instruction and materials, and data from the College Board and the high school counseling offices concerning possible effects on college admission of dropping foreign-language requirements.

Sir Scribblelots again pats himself on the back, blinded to the error of his ways. He is just old enough to remember the time before the internet made child’s play of collecting the needed documents. Back in the day, he muses, it would have taken several days of running around to collect the needed documents from the state legislative library, some high school counselors’ offices and the union headquarters. Now, he can access all of those documents online. He does not realize that he could have saved even more precious time if he had used board portal software, which provides an online archive where the board secretary would have placed all of the historical and legislative materials relevant to the Board of Education in one central location.

While he is saving time relative to his counterpart circa 1980, Sir Inkius is still not fully leveraging the internet to keep his board informed. As he prepares the final agenda, he cannot link each discussion item to the internet sources that provide background information. He could attach all the documents to the email in which he delivers the agenda (and hope the board members don’t erase them), or he could type in URLs within the text of the agenda itself. In neither case does his Board of Education get the ease of access that Lady Excelicus’s board enjoys: Her board members can click on links within the agenda to read union agreements, newspaper stories, legislation, past budgets and data on college entrance foreign-language requirements. Her board, as a result, is far more likely to do the background reading, as half the board is young enough to eschew any references that require more than a single click to access.

  1. Distributing the Final Agenda. While nobody in either parallel universe is boxing up carefully copied and collated piles of paper for the post office, only Lady Excelicus is getting her final agenda out with the high level of security that professionalism demands. Because he is attaching the final agenda to emails, Sir Scribblelots is incurring the same security risks that he faced when he sent out the draft agenda. If he uses email addresses linked to a state network, he again exposes the attached data – and the email addresses – to hackers who can proceed through that gateway into other documents of the network, such as personnel files. If he promises an agenda and supplementary materials on Google Docs, he again subjects the agenda and the documents to cybercriminals.

During the Meeting

When Sir Scribblelots distributes the final agenda, he instructs the Board of Education members to download and print out the agenda and accompanying documents. They bring these documents to the meeting – unless they forget, or their printer runs out of ink or they don’t have time to swing by the office before the meeting after all. Anyone who doesn’t bring the documents cannot follow along in the text for the duration of the meeting.

Sir Scribblelots may have pre-emptively brought extra copies, but his meeting is still less effective than Lady Excelicus’s. In her meeting, all of the board members are looking at the same projected image of the agenda on a movie-sized screen in the conference room. One person controls navigation. The shared focus provided by the screen helps to unify the group, and the prominent visual image makes it easier for the chair to keep the discussion on task, but that’s not all: Lady Excelicus’s paperless system has an even bigger advantage.

Say one board member wants to discuss one of the attachments, the union agreement with foreign-language teachers. Who feels naked now? In Sir Scribblelots’s board meeting, 10 people each search four to five stapled documents, and a panicked scramble ensues: 10 people shuffling through countless pages of text. After several minutes of this, a relieved voice cries out: “It’s on page 16 of the one with bold red text in the top margin.” More shuffling ensues as everybody finds the document with bold red text in the top margin and flips over to page 16. In Lady Excelicus’s board meeting, the computer navigator quickly flashes the right page of the right document on the screen for all to see. A keyword search made it a breeze to find the right page.

Then another board member has a bright idea: Couldn’t we honor our union agreement by assigning the foreign-language teachers to teach classes outside their field? Sir Scribblelots’s board has no tools to continue the discussion with the information it needs, so he has to table discussion until the next meeting. If he allows laptops in the meeting, the board members may try to find the germane documents then and there. The board may waste several more minutes as each member scrambles through a Google search of different terms, coming up with unrelated sites containing disparate information. In Lady Excelicus’s boardroom, the computer navigator again conducts a simple search for keywords – this time, in the union documents stored in the portal archive. Comprehensive searchability (extending even to embedded attachments, as long as they’re stored in the portal’s archive) makes the portal archives infinitely more useful than an unsearchable URL. In her boardroom, the computer navigator quickly identifies the relevant page of the right document and flashes it on the screen for all to read. The fully informed board can vote then and there.

After the Meeting

The single greatest asset of any Board of Education is the fragile trust that it enjoys with the constituents of the state. Transparency cements that trust. Prompt posting of meeting minutes signals responsiveness and accountability to the public. Board portal software often includes a service that converts agendas and notes into minutes, which can be posted immediately upon approval by the relevant officers. Board portal software also seamlessly integrates multiple media, so video footage of the entire meeting can be posted online right after the meeting is adjourned. Meanwhile, Sir Scribblelots waits for the recording secretary to send him the typed-up minutes. (He feels guilty prompting him, as it’s a volunteer duty.) Two weeks pass, he finally receives them and they make a belated appearance on the website – once he gets someone to take the additional step of posting them there. Posting video footage is more than he can dream of.

The paperless Board of Education meeting is smoother and speedier than its more traditional counterpart. The security of its documents protects the state from expensive and burdensome cyberattacks while it makes documents not only easily accessible, but searchable for any on-the-spot information that the board requires as its discussions evolve. Sir Scribblelots may feel strangely soothed that the paper copies in his boardroom are “real” objects, but it’s Lady Excelicus whose paperless meeting keeps her Board of Education focused on the business at hand. From preliminary meeting preparation straight through to the posting of minutes, board portal software is the clear choice for the serious Board of Education.