Public transparency refers to how well school boards maintain open and honest lines of communication with citizens and keep them informed on decisions that are made in the best interests of the district. From the perspective of school boards of directors, the public is always watching and waiting to see how well they uphold their responsibilities of governance and oversight. In this position, school boards are expected to be as open as possible concerning board discussions and any decisions that will be made on behalf of the district. Especially because school boards determine and oversee initiatives focused around student success, concerned family members and community members are likely to feel untrusting of the district’s school board if they suspect that any business is being conducted behind closed doors.
In compliance with stringent open meeting laws, school boards are prohibited from holding any secret or private board meetings that would exclude the public from attending and/or participating. While school boards must strive to maintain compliance with open meeting laws, building strong public transparency should be a key objective of the board regardless. With the advancement of technology, digital tools are now available to school boards that automate and streamline inefficiencies involved in board work, which extends to public transparency efforts as well. In keeping with the open meeting laws that their state enforces, school boards can leverage paperless meeting software to provide meeting materials, notices and even video streams of meetings in a central location online. Providing this kind of easy, intuitive public access opens other doors for civic engagement and provides opportunities to improve public transparency.
Public boards should always be aware of how engaged the community is during open meetings. Vibrant community engagement gives public boards needed, candid feedback, often shedding light on alternatives that the board might not have considered previously. Citizen stakeholders’ voices should be heard throughout the process of open meetings and decision-making as this prevents distrust and unwanted surprises. In looking to engage the district more while working within tight schedules and budgets, investing in the right board management software enables school boards to approach public transparency more holistically. Providing easy avenues to access information in the digital age is valuable for today’s citizens, not just giving them an effective method for obtaining the materials and resources they need, but also for communicating the board’s commitment to engaging with citizens.
Many people view today’s technologies as a barrier to human contact and real relationships – however, in the case of school boards, providing online access actually has the effect of helping citizens feel closer to and more involved in their community. When the public is kept informed and feels as though they are included and considered in the decisions that are made for the district, this fosters a healthy relationship between board members and citizens. Ultimately, boardroom technology can facilitate more open dialogue and make citizens feel more comfortable to attend meetings and speak to board members personally.
While making the transition from paper-bound processes to digital can certainly be a bumpy road – for both school board members and citizens – ultimately everyone can reap the benefits. In recent years, school boards around the country have been taking actions to find new and exciting ways to use online tools for improved transparency. Initiatives such as leveraging online surveys and evaluations to increase citizen input, using online resources to make meetings and records easily accessible to everyone in the district, and even board members campaigning on the promise of greater transparency through technology are all great examples of ways that districts can improve public transparency. Sticking to a set of best practices ensures that school board members are hitting all the key areas involved in boosting public transparency and are working diligently to fulfill them as effectively as possible.
Public trust is a fragile thing to play with, which is why many school boards struggle to maintain a strong sense of civic trust and engagement. In order to ensure greater public transparency and build trust among a district, school boards must follow good board governance practices. This entails following open meeting laws to a tee, adopting digital tools that allow for greater accessibility and open communication between administrators and citizens, and preparing appropriately for cyber risk by conducting cyber trainings and establishing a cyber risk framework. Good board governance goes hand in hand with public transparency as it guarantees that school board members will fulfill their responsibilities effectively, thus facilitating and welcoming openness with regard to board business and decisions that impact the district.