Conduct a Google search of “School Boards” and “Transparency,” and you will get a flood of hits. Much of the press covers citizen complaints that school boards are doing business behind closed doors. Charleston, SC, earned the wrath of constituents when the board announced plans for a new football stadium without including the public as the plan was being developed. Torrington, CT, got a slap on the wrist for deciding to shut down an elementary school without consulting the community. As digital communication changes the meaning of “open meetings” and “open records,” school boards have an opportunity to vastly increase their transparency.
It’s no news that American school board meetings must be open to the public, their records accessible to any citizen. The spirit of the law has not changed. The application of the law, however, is being rewritten state by state as online communication largely supplants in-person meetings and search engines replace binders in basements for holding public records. Questions with widespread ramifications are being answered in every state capital.
Does an email constitute a “meeting”? In Florida, even an email exchange between two people is considered a meeting. In Indiana and California, serial “chain” emails are subject to open meetings laws, but not simple, two-person exchanges. An email can be both a meeting and a public record, making its difficult traceability an impediment to archivists.
If public records are kept in notebooks in the town library, are they “open” enough? People with various handicaps often can’t get to the library. The records are not always organized intuitively, and it takes a considerable investment of time (and sometimes money) to photocopy items of interest. Online storage can make them far more accessible, but is it actually required by law? Some states, such as Illinois, are starting to answer in the affirmative.
So what is a school board to do? Determined to make state government records more transparent through technology, the Executive Director of Reinvent Albany observes that a “giant gap” separates early adopters from laggards in the digital transition. Mark Blom, senior staff attorney at the National School Boards Association, encourages school districts to meet and exceed current requirements, as it’s only a matter of time before laws governing “open meetings” and “open records” are updated to cover digital communications:
“School boards have to realize most of the ways the open-meetings and -records laws have been written mean there should be an automatic interpretation that using new technology to communicate applies as a meeting and a record. These issues can all be addressed by policy, but many school boards don’t have a policy in place yet” (Fleming).
While each state works to clarify expectations, school boards can improve citizen engagement by taking advantage of many new opportunities for greater transparency.
The State of the Art
Districts across the country are pushing the envelope, finding new and exciting ways that online tools can invigorate their communities by taking transparency to the next level. The quest for digital “openness” has momentum:
- Los Angeles elected a Board of Education bloc that campaigned on the promise of greater transparency; they’ve generated lots of ideas.
- Hancock Place, MO, is using the internet to give “open” meetings a new and broader meaning.
- Park Hill, MO, has increased citizen input with online surveys and evaluations.
- Cambridge, MA, is using online resources to make meetings and records accessible to more people than ever before.
From these pioneers on the digital frontier, a set of best practices emerges for any school board eager to improve community relations with unprecedented levels of transparency.
- Store all public records on a single online portal. A centerpiece of the transparency movement in Los Angeles, the transition to a single online portal brings unprecedented efficiency and simplicity to any citizen eager to pore over records. Beware, though:
Hackers love small governments! Make sure the portal has 256-bit encryption and stores data on a private, cloud-based server. Hancock Place has found that central storage on a portal archive makes it more likely that citizens will review past meetings.
- Make the portal sortable, downloadable and searchable. Also touted by Los Angeles leadership, these features make stored documents useful, with a speed and precision not possible in the paper age. Instantaneous downloading replaces the slog of making library photocopies. (How many citizens have the time for that old-fashioned research modality?) Searchability brings focus when chasing down information relevant to a particular question. Comprehensive metasearches save time and frustration by “peering” into separate files and folders to find keywords wherever they appear.
- Ban board emails. While many cities and states are moving to limit emails to government-issued email addresses, banning email altogether is a safer solution. Many states are tolerating emails if it’s not through a personal email account because a district administrator could turn over all emails from government-issued accounts if they were ever demanded in the discovery process, whereas employees could choose to turn over only select emails from their personal accounts. The move to government-issued email addresses has traction, as Hillary Clinton learned the hard way. New Mexico is hammering out its requirements; at present, state employees can’t use private email addresses to conduct business, but school board members can.
While public email addresses certainly provide full public access in the event of a lawsuit, they expose sensitive public data to too much risk. A simple phishing scam that targets (publicly posted) district-based email addresses could give hackers access to all of the data and code on its server. Ransomware rackets could hold that confidential data hostage or corrupt code to freeze all district operations.
A better solution is to conduct board communications within a board portal. Collaborative editing features bring focus to communications about a shared document, and a shared version of a document can even get updated instantaneously for all users once a change is made.
- Maximize accessibility for the handicapped population. Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements now call for public-facing websites to accommodate people with an extensive list of disabilities. Not all board portals fully comply, despite frequent claims to the contrary. Cambridge Public Schools not only meets the requirements, but bolsters goodwill by posting a bold accessibility policy on their website.
- Post video footage of school board meetings. While journalists and local cable networks have long held the right to tape and broadcast school board meetings, their reach has been limited. If the board itself tapes and broadcasts its own meetings on its public-facing website, it increases the likelihood that citizens will actually watch the proceedings because they can view them on their own time. In what could be a sign of things to come, Delaware is considering legislation to require school boards to post such video within 78 hours of their meetings.
- Post meeting agendas and public attachments in advance of the meeting. California amended its open meeting law (“the Brown Act”) to require online posting of agendas. The new venue not only notifies the public of upcoming meetings, but also makes it easy for them to follow along if they review the meeting later by watching the video.
- Post board packets online through a document publisher. Getting out paper copies of board packets takes a lot of time, labor and expense. Using a document publisher saves time and increases efficiency. And when there’s a last-minute change, a few clicks replace the old version with the new. No more frantically photocopying new material and replacing binder contents.
- Make meeting materials and other records accessible by any device. People access the internet from laptops, desktops, tablets and smartphones. Make sure your portal can be opened by any such device. Accommodations for the handicapped frequently do not work smoothly across multiple devices, but the best board portals offer cross-device compatibility that extends to all adaptations of the material.
- Increase interactivity with online surveys and evaluations. Park Hill has seen more citizens get involved as they use their portal to post online evaluation forms, suggestion boxes and surveys. Constituents are chiming in on everything from cutting costs to redistricting boundaries. Berkeley, CA, is even making the results of online surveys and evaluations a part of their meeting minutes.
- Prevent mishaps with your confidential information. As information becomes more and more open, the risk of compromising confidentiality becomes formidable. One crucial step keeps private matters out of harm’s way:
For the sensitive material that boards routinely handle, the best practice is to use a board portal with role-based authorizations. Versions of a document with different levels of detail will appear for viewers classified as “executives,” “administrators” or “public.”
Digital communications can boost a school board’s transparency astronomically. Rather than waiting for their state to mandate that open-meeting and open-record laws be extended to the digital domain, boards eager to bolster transparency are taking the bull by the horns. A board eager to engage citizens at a new level can follow the concrete steps charted by trailblazers in the field. Their next challenge will be a champagne problem: How can they harness all the energy and ideas that citizens are bringing to their doorstep?