The same issues threaten every school board. Data breaches, derailed meetings, federal investigations, perceived secrecy, corrupt contracts, and document leaks undermine public trust in districts large and small, in rural outposts and major metropolitan areas alike. In both the U.S. and Canada, school boards can easily become weighed down by all of the pressing challenges they are faced with day in and day out. It is with the right practices and a strong system of accountability that school boards are able to overcome these challenges and work towards advancing education. In fact, top-performing school boards exhibit five core elements that any of their peers can adopt.
1. Security Savoir-Faire
Informed, pro-active security management leads the list because substandard practices can have such devastating consequences. With school boards being choice targets of ransomware rackets and identity theft schemes, it is imperative that boards are more James Bond than Mr. Magoo. State-of-the-art security requires:
- A secure board portal. Such a portal builds a solid fortress around district documents and board communications. The portal must provide full 256-bit encryption of all data and storage on a secure, private, cloud-based server ' not 128-bit encryption.
- A ban on board emails. Emails make light work of the hacker's job. If any board member using a district-issued email address falls for click-bait in an email subject line, the hacker can penetrate the district network's central nervous system -- harvesting salaries, grades, medical records, and bank account numbers of hundreds or thousands of stakeholders. Posting board members' email addresses on the public-facing website (a common practice) sends an engraved invitation to cyberbullies.
- Contained distribution. Board business must be confined to the secure board portal to prevent proliferation that cannot be traced. The best school boards have a policy prohibiting downloads onto personal devices or desktop hard drives.
- Ongoing training. An IT or IS expert should train the board to use the portal's security features at least once a year, ideally four times a year. Human error remains the leading cause of data breaches, and board members come to the job with vastly different levels of technological know-how.
2. Structured Meetings
Dysfunctional school board meetings accomplish nothing, breed resentment, and signal incompetence. The frequency of such failed meetings is evidenced by the common jokes and media images of the school board meeting as a three-ring circus in which disgruntled citizens easily run the show. Enforcing a few policies creates structure that welcomes the public while keeping the reins of control clearly in the hands of the chairman of the board. The policies are simple:
- Use Robert's Rules of Order. These rules normalize the practice whereby the chairman of the board grants and withdraws control of 'the floor' to one person at a time. Meetings that erupt into chaos lack any clear rules dictating who may speak. Nor do they have a way to keep many speakers from chiming in at once.
- Prepare board members to get business done. The culture of the school board must make it clear that reading before the meetings is not optional; it is mandatory. To make the task easy, send the agenda and board packet electronically through the secure board portal. (After all, the board sees highly sensitive material.) The packet materials can even be a click away ' and searchable! ' if they're stored on a curated archive made possible by the most robust of board portals.
- Create an agenda designed for results. A secure board portal can post the agenda to the board and to the public simultaneously, satisfying public meeting laws. With the right portal, the committee reports and minutes that are attached to the agenda are just a click away. A single vote on all of them (known as a 'consent agenda') saves precious meeting time.
- Indicate the action to be taken on each item. Is it time to vote on an item? Is it at the initial discussion stage? Has it been sent out for research? Make it explicit on the agenda at which stage each item currently stands and what needs to happen as a result of this meeting. Avoid the trap of slapping 'discuss' before every single item.
- Provide forewarning of closed sessions. Impromptu closed sessions make the public suspect foul play. Use closed sessions sparingly, and announce them in the agenda. To convey honest, include on the agenda the exact phrasing of the state law with which the closed session is complying.
- Constructively direct public input. Speakers should sign up for time in advance of the meeting, stating the (single) topic to be addressed. An online form on the board portal makes it easy. The form provides an opportunity to prominently display the time limit for all speakers. The resulting list of speakers should appear on the agenda.
3. Maximal Transparency
Make it as simple as possible for constituents to find any information they may desire ' barring confidential information, naturally. With online feedback forms, communication between each citizen and the school board can continue between meetings. A good board portal will even let you post your own taped video footage of meetings alongside the minutes.
4. Confidential Document Protection
The openness of maximal transparency is a mixed blessing, given the critical information to which school boards are privy. Again, look to the board portal itself for the solution. Role-based authorization consistently keeps board-only versions of documents accessible to the board and nobody else. A scrubbed version of sensitive documents will appear when portal users with different roles click on the same tab on their user interface.
5. Freedom from Corruption
Are school board elections cloaked in mystery? Does one family dominate the school board and the town committee that holds the purse strings? Do cronies get coveted contracts with inflated charges? If so, no amount of procedural genius can create the trust that breeds active community engagement. The best school boards steer clear of such dubious practices. If a predecessor left them with a mess, they clean it up.
These five core elements make school boards rise to the top of the class. The National School Boards Association has also outlined the eight characteristics of effective boards, detailing the ways in which school boards can enhance motivation, perseverance and improve overall student success. Putting all of these core ideas into practice can bring any school board the 'magic' that charms the leading districts in North America.