How Paperless Meetings Increase Board Engagement

Lena Eisenstein
Before the 2015 AASA conference, National School Boards Association (NSBA) and the School Superintendents Association (AASA) executives convened a special meeting to discuss a growing threat to the quality of U.S. education: rising rates of turnover among leaders. Superintendents and school board members frequently do not complete their terms of service, as politics, constituent tensions and the countless frustrations of bureaucracy rob them of their early idealism. It matters: Student test scores decline demonstrably as turnover rates increase.

Who can blame the board for losing heart? School board service can feel downright Sisyphean. Poor communication intensifies constituent outrage, disrupted meetings never address pressing business, numerous versions of documents circulate in no particular order and political opponents throw up roadblocks at every turn. Paperless board meetings can increase board engagement by reducing these frustrations so the school board can meet more of its goals. At many critical junctures, paperless meetings lighten the load on overburdened board members.

Meetings Stay on Task

Notoriously, school board meetings get derailed by heated outbursts by attendees who either don't know or don't care about the planned agenda. The board chairman could have carefully prepared readings and speakers to address urgent district business on the curriculum, but all that work comes to naught when a vocal constituent rises to declare: 'It's high time we address staff hiring practices! The cronyism must end!' A few others chime in, and soon a chorus drowns out the chairman and the board. The group might walk out. They might start a chant. They might speak in turn about their strong feelings. Journalists will take their pictures and quote their complaints.

After this seismic shift, only one thing is certain: The curriculum will never be addressed. The board and the public alike will rightly feel that the meeting wasted their time. Why would they show up at the next meeting for more of the same?

A paperless meeting keeps the agenda in its rightful place as a visual anchor uniting the room. A sizable projected image of the agenda gives the chairperson just what he needs to bring the group back to the curriculum. With a pointer, he can steer everyone's eyes to the agenda's prescribed sequence of events to redirect dispassionately: 'But now we're on Item Two. If you'd like to discuss hiring practices, there's a process for proposing topics for the next meeting.' He shuts down the distraction without even the appearance of a personal attack.

Each board member and each member of the public gets a strong signal: Their investment of time is being respected, and the board is able to get things done. Of course, they'll come back next time.

A Prepared Board Makes Informed Decisions

Paperless meetings make board preparation less frustrating. Paperless meetings rely on board portal software, which helps each board member prepare for meetings in three ways:
  • Instead of getting the board packet in a bulky mailing, each board member can log on to the board portal, where readings appear at the click of a mouse. He has no heavy papers to carry around (and possibly misplace).

  • He can also focus on what matters to him in the reading. Every file in the archive is fully searchable by keyword. A meta-search scans all files (in all formats) to find every instance of a term's usage.

  • To follow his curiosity further, he can even search through historical documents; the same archive that stores the readings can keep a limitless archive of historical records: founding documents, legislation, policies, maps, budgets, RFPs ...They, too, are searchable by keyword, so he can read any necessary background. Time in the meeting is not then wasted on ascertaining relevant facts.

Each school board member then comes thoroughly prepared, others do the same and the meeting deliberations are highly informed ' all with less bulk and less time than paper-based readings sent through the mail.

A Prepared Public Contributes More

Not only is the board poised to contribute more; so is the public. The board portal makes it possible for them, too, to easily access (and search) not only the agenda, but also the readings and records.

But wait. Surely, the public should not be reading materials that the board reads. Board literature contains highly sensitive information about disciplinary actions, medical records and student performance. A good board portal gives the public just what they need to know and nothing more.

The portal feature called role-based authorizations keeps public and board versions of documents consistently segregated. Because the software sorts viewers according to their role in the organization, different people's user interfaces lead them to different versions of the same documents. A board member can pull up a draft with confidential details about a dispute, while other constituents see a scrubbed version of the same document when they click on the same tab.

Constituent Complaints Subside

Arguably the greatest threat to board morale and productivity, public complaints can be enough to drive board members away. (See'Dissatisfaction theory of democracy' in Alsbury, 2003.) Paperless meetings can help in two ways:
  • Public trust supplants suspicion as transparent, comprehensible and searchable public records invite citizen scrutiny. Fears of 'deep government' operating behind the scenes lose their power.

  • With a board portal, citizens can vent their views more frequently and outside of meetings themselves. An online presence can routinize the process of providing feedback and getting responses, with a permanent link on the public-facing website that solicits citizen input. The board can respond to most feedback without a face-to-face confrontation. If meetings provide the only opportunity for responsive communication, it's no wonder that resentments build over the weeks or months between meetings.

Younger Voters Get Involved

Boards using paperless meetings report another benefit they had not expected: Younger voters are turning up at meetings and volunteering to help. With the agenda, readings and minutes posted on a website, citizens under 40 find it in a space they consider cool rather than stuffy. They're also far more likely to see and read district business when it's posted online, as they spend so many hours every week staring at screens anyway. Everyone benefits when projects receive more energy and more ideas.

The environmental stewardship of paperless meetings adds to the appeal among younger voters. If their parents' schooling taught them prepositions and participles, more recent college alumni graduate fully versed in carbon footprints and BTUs. Some college graduates even sign a pledge that they will contribute their time and talent only to enterprises with sustainable practices. A school board that eliminates paper can make it onto their radar for the first time.

The Chairman's Workload Becomes Manageable

At any school board meeting, the board chairman may be the single greatest 'flight risk' in the room. He's prodded people repeatedly for weeks to get in committee reports, minutes and speaker arrangements. He's the one on the spot to keep fragmentation and emotion from overtaking the agenda. Traditionally, he's also had to collect materials, photocopy them and mail them out in the week or two before a meeting. Burnout is only a matter of time.

With paperless meetings, the chairman's workload is lighter. Sending out materials is much less work, and a projected agenda makes it easier to stop digressions.

Paperless meetings boost school board member engagement. Once-hijacked meetings become focused conversations among informed stakeholders. In the intervals between meetings, the board can read more, citizens can air their grievances and anyone attending the meeting can research issues. An enthusiastic citizen eager to contribute will find the climate just right for a full term of invigorating service to the community.
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Lena Eisenstein
Lena Eisenstein is a former Manager at Diligent. Her expertise in mission-driven organizations, including nonprofits, school boards and local governments, centers on how technology and modern governance best practices empower leaders at these organizations to serve their communities with efficiency and purpose.