Stemming the Inbox Overflow

by Jim Bastian

For many school districts, particularly smaller ones, policies governing internal communication, such as e-mail use, are administered in the human resources department.

E-mail sounds so efficient as a means to share information. No more writing formal memos on a typewriter or in longhand and physically running down to the office mail room to reproduce and distribute to mail slots. No more needing to track down a faculty member with teaching assignments in multiple buildings or to circulate a form requiring multiple signoffs.

The capacity to communicate electronically was introduced in school systems without corresponding acceptable use policies and procedures. We unleashed a monster.

In handling human resource department audits, I have commonly seen an e-mail inbox of a principal containing dozens of new messages received between lunch and the end of the school day. Co-mingled within this mass of messages are the vital and urgent as well as the mundane (“there is cake in the teacher’s room” or “any containers left in the refrigerator over the weekend will be discarded”). The ability of any school district employee to press the “send to all” button based on their assessment of what is appropriate means everyone gets buried with the inappropriate.

If you don’t have an internal communication policy, you ought to develop one. Pay a school secretary some overtime to make copies of a week’s worth of e-mail. Create a graph showing where the messages are coming from and apply a 1-4 score for appropriateness.

For $200 you will likely find that 15 percent of the district staff sends 70 percent of the e-mails, and of those, 90 percent are not applicable to all recipients. A few guidelines can save a district thousands of work hours annually.

A suburban Chicago school district with more than 35,000 students established an e-mail help desk to assist district employees with the technology. This ensured the message and means of distribution were appropriate for the intended recipients.