Focus

Board-Superintendent Relations: Going Paperless at the Board Table

by Phillip J. Ertl

With two school board meetings a month, it seemed as though I was constantly preparing for the next meeting immediately as soon as one would conclude. The heavy amount of paperwork always was difficult to manage and read through, not only for me and other central-office staff but for school board and community members as well.

Our district found an answer to the paper burden: Paperless school board operations.

When the voters in our school district in 1999 passed a referendum that provided for significant technology investments, we used the opportunity to rethink the standard practice of board operations.

The referendum granted recurring revenue authority that authorized $150,000 each year for maintenance and updates of our systems. This money has funded various uses, including the purchase of wireless personal computers for use by school board members. Each member has been issued a laptop for use with any board-related duty, including access at home to meeting agendas, official e-mails, web-based articles and other board business.

Modeling Leadership

We promoted technology literacy among board members through constant updates from our technology department as well as demonstrations of the educational uses of technology. This has proven to be a way for board members to model their leadership in the use of technology while applying these skills to board decision making on technology purchases and modernization that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

All of our information is posted on our district website on the Wednesday prior to our Monday school board meetings. Each of our seven school board members has password access to board-level information. The administrative team uses a similar process to access its information. The local newspaper reporter assigned to cover our schools uses a school district computer during board meetings to access information being considered by the board. Community members can access nonconfidential information on board agendas without a password.

Our board meetings are held in different buildings throughout the school year. All of our laptops have wireless access to our district network at all meeting locations. At the meetings board members and administrators access the information through the website and can retrieve their previously saved notations about the item being addressed.

No significant ongoing costs are associated with the change to paperless board meetings. The initial investment was the cost of the computers and the portable wireless access points. Each laptop cost $1,450 and the access points were purchased for $250 for a total of $10,400. We actually save time and expense when putting the information online compared to what’s required to assemble paper packets for each member. We can scan the board packet and post it on the website in less than an hour for a typical meeting. Previously, we would have to copy, collate, assemble and circulate the paperwork, and it was an even greater burden when the agenda had to be revised. We now can update the agenda at any time or add needed information by simply sending an e-mail to notify board members of the change.

We also communicate electronically between meetings to distribute weekly board memos and notifications of school events. While the amount of this communication has increased so has our knowledge of the issues surrounding open meetings laws, walking quorums and public records laws. We remind board members of the purpose of e-mail and the pitfalls associated with its inappropriate use.

Occasional Glitches

This whole process has not been without hurdles and challenges. A few community members have questioned the expenditure of district dollars on laptops for board members. I continue to point out the value of board members showing leadership in this important area. We had briefly considered other options, such as soliciting community donations or looking for sponsors or using older, slower desktop computers with information being contained on CDs, but we felt strongly in the purchasing decision.

We experience occasional network failures or computer malfunctions during board meetings, which has led to some long silent lapses. This is typically followed by humorous comments about technology and the good old days of paper and pencil. Our high-speed scanner also has had days of inoperability, which forces us to put the information online later than promised. These issues are easily overcome and we continue to make improvement in our paperless board operations.

After 2½ years of implementation, support for the initiative is broader among community members, staff and administrators. Our board meetings are more concise, our board members are better informed, and overall our school district is more effective because of the paperless operations.

Phil Ertl is superintendent of the Kiel Area School District, P.O. Box 201, Kiel, WI 53042. E-mail: pjertl@kiel.k12.wi.us