Focus

BOARD RELATIONS

by THOMAS DeMARCO

Two years ago the superintendent walked into my office. Normally, if you are a technology director you know this means you have another assignment to deal with. The superintendent said he wanted to try to do a paperless school board meeting. His exact words were: “Figure this out. If you need some help, there is some school in Texas doing this, and by the way before we start let me know how much this will cost.”

As soon as he left, many questions nagged at me. How does a small suburban district conduct a paperless board of education meeting? Would it be cost effective? Would we see ancillary benefits to eliminating paper? Would the board embrace the paperless idea?

Typically a North Hills School District board meeting agenda with corresponding attachments requires up to 200 pages. Four different versions of the agenda exist because of various confidentiality issues with different groups of employees and the public. The entire agenda is assembled on the Friday before the Monday board meeting. The paper document then is delivered to the nine board members’ homes. The delivery person is paid overtime if the job runs past 4 p.m. We repeat the process a second time every month.

Any late changes to the board agenda became an issue because 40 copies of a thick document had to be updated. Last-minute changes were difficult. Distributing the various versions to the appropriate people was complicated. There was a chance that confidential information could be routed to the wrong person.

By going paperless, we resolved many of these problems.

Simple Technology
The procedure for eliminating paper is simple. The meeting agenda is put together as a web page. Any web editing software will work and most are as easy to use as word processing software. We use Microsoft FrontPage.

By compiling the agenda on the web, we can reorder pages and incorporate editing changes easily. Copies of contracts, official letters and drawings can be handled using a regular scanner to convert these documents into a common Adobe Reader file in Portable Document Format. By converting hard copies to a PDF file, all formatting is retained and any signatures are visible.

We discovered several devices cost less than $1,200 that allow you to scan a 50-page document and convert it to a PDF file just as you would run it through a photocopier. The entire process is much faster than reproducing the board agenda the old way.

The agenda is hosted on the school district’s Intranet. This is a private portion of the web server that is not accessible to the public. During meetings board members use laptops with wireless connections to access the agenda web page. We borrow the laptops from the district’s math lab. On meeting nights they are transported to the board room, then returned for instructional use the following day.

As the agenda and supporting documents are assembled, the superintendent and the board can monitor the process. Of course, proper security clearances are required to view the various sections. When the agenda is complete, it is posted to the public section of the district’s website, where anyone can access a complete, up-to-date agenda with attachments minus executive session information. Other versions of the agenda, such as the one intended for administrators, can be copied to the correct location and the appropriate content edited for that particular group.

Modest Costs
Some advantages to going paperless are obvious. Distribution of information is a breeze. Electronic agendas save time. Revisions are efficient. You have fast, quick communication to board, staff and public. Board members find the process flexible and convenient. The process enables board members to model what they expect from the staff and students in the use of technology.

The cost of going paperless has been reasonable. Since going to a paperless agenda in February 2001, North Hills has eliminated more than 8,000 pages of paper copying per month. The equipment, software, training and high-speed Internet access for nine board members’ homes cost $6,400. In the second year, the overall cost to the district was only $330.

If you are looking for a way to use your district’s existing technology, save money, improve communications and revitalize your school board meetings, this is the project for you

Thomas DeMarco is director of technology and information services, North Hills School District, 135 Sixth Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15229. E-mail: DeMarcoT@nhsd.k12.pa.us. The author details the project at www.nhsd.k12.pa.us/noPaper.htm.