School Board Meetings: Public Access and the Problem with SharePoint

Microsoft has effectively dropped out of the public website market. Drowned out by the din of jargon around new SharePoint Online features is the abrupt sacrifice of its public-facing website capacity, which Microsoft is phasing out over the next two years for existing customers. Digital branding consultant Eric Overfield infers from this announcement that Microsoft made a calculated decision that the intranet market was a more profitable niche: “Public-facing SharePoint Online sites are holding Office 365 and SharePoint Online back.” (Eric Overfield, “No More Public-Facing SP Online in Office 365?” SPTechCon.com). As a result, school boards and other public entities feel stranded by Microsoft with respect to conducting their board business.

Migration Options

Microsoft customers who must satisfy open meeting laws and open records laws now face the plight of all exiles: where to turn? Desperation must not drive out discernment; a “rebound relationship” is not a long-term solution. The two-year phase-out period allows municipal entities some time to shop around, though they may rightly be wary of investing more to customize – and train staff to refine their skills on – SharePoint. School boards reliant on SharePoint will likely face three options:

(1) Hope for Microsoft to launch another solution;

(2) Run into the arms of cloud-based website hosts; or

(3) Seek a more secure, public-facing website providerdesigned for board governance

The first two alternatives do not provide responsible solutions. The smart money’s on third-party vendors that actually cater to school boards.

Option One: “Maybe Microsoft Will Come Back!”

If the complete Microsoft suite has satisfied clients, they may simply hope that Microsoft has a future solution in store for them. Their faith is unwarranted: The company has made no promises of future rollouts. Surely, they would have announced any successor solution at the same time that they dropped the public-facing feature from SharePoint; why lose that market share? To be blunt: Microsoft gives no indication of wanting small public clients back. Overfield advises his readers to face that fact: “We have to say goodbye to them.” Lest customers mistake this hard stop for a mere pause, Microsoft is even subsidizing its choice of alternative providers. Their discount may lead the vigilant school board to consider its second option.

Option Two: “I’ll pick a website provider I’ve heard of!”

The most recent intelligence from Microsoft suggests that they will even subsidize the cost if their clients move their website hosting to either Wix.com or GoDaddy. (Affirma Consulting, “SharePoint Public Website End of Life”) Such a content management system or domain registrar will, indeed, serve as host for a public-facing website, but why settle? What else will it provide? School boards tolerated SharePoint’s limitations because they were part of a package that they bought into for other reasons. They were not in a position to be more demanding. But now it’s high time they demand more from their website host.

It’s as if an old-school secretary’s Smith-Corona typewriter broke and she looked for a Royal typewriter to replace it, when she could actually now get a computer-based word processor that allowed copies without carbon paper, edits without retyping entire documents and research without library trips. She is free to protest, “But it’s not a typewriter!” – and school boards are free to seek a look-alike for a crude website provider that does little else. They could do better.

Option Three: “I’ll Seek a Website Host That Can Solve Other Problems That I Face”

With the withdrawal of Microsoft from the public-facing website game, school boards just lost their Smith-Corona typewriters. Those that simply substitute a GoDaddy for a SharePoint do not recognize their newfound freedom. It’s possible for them to solve multiple problems that they face when they choose a new public-facing website provider, because some public portal providers actually tailor their products to the governance needs of school boards.

Governance Features for Small Public Bodies

A school board’s public-facing website host can meet an astonishing number of its seemingly unrelated needs by choosing a third-party vendor that caters to its governance requirements. BoardDocs does so much more than host a public-facing website, which puts school boards in compliance with open meeting laws but does little else. It also helps school boards:

  1. Attain the high level of security that school boards require. School boards and small municipalities are scrambling to improve the security of their web-based materials in the wake of a growing number of costly cyberattacks like the March assault on Atlanta.Because BoardDocs stores its websites off the cloud, it provides the state-of-the-art security that due diligence requires. As small districts read about ransomware attacks that could hit them soon, they will find a strong line of defense already built into software that puts them first.
  2. BoardDocs does the hard work so its public-facing websites reach full ADA compliance.
    All government-related entities with a web presence must provide multiple accommodations for viewers with numerous disabilities. BoardDocs eliminates the guesswork; it checks every single box while staying abreast of changes in the regulations. It’s like getting a legal team and IT staff without hiring anybody.
  3. Group editing of documents is a snap with BoardDocs. A shared document on a safe portal “refreshes” in real time as any user makes changes, identifying for all users the name of the editor who made each change.
  4. The BoardDocs user gets razor-edge precision, with documents that are fully searchable down to the attachment level. Each new document can be added to an archive, in which all contents can be searched by keyword in a single stroke. Wonder where you’ve heard mention of “tertiary preparation policies” over the last five years? It’s possible to search past meeting minutes and any media coverage, legislation or other material that you’ve stored in the archive.
  5. BoardDocs, an entity of Diligent, has earned an outstanding reputation for service. Who could a customer call with a question for Microsoft? What about Wix or Azure? The high level of acquisition activity in the IT industry has left most customers stuck with service provided by increasingly indifferent and ignorant companies. They bought out the business that created the product, replacing the crew that knew the product inside out and tended to its every need. To the new parent company, it is an ugly stepchild. They don’t know its intricacies well enough to help clients navigate its inner workings. Satisfaction ratings are confirming that corporate continuity enhances customer service. It’s rare in IT, especially among the behemoths that gobble up smaller companies for sport.
  6. BoardDocs also lets school boards juggle the varying degrees of privacy needed for their multiple constituencies. Board members may need to read about a teacher’s criminal record when the public absolutely must not be apprised of the information. Role-based authorizations bring the right version of each document to the right user every time.

All of these features are available to school boards that have learned from their experiences with software providers whose updates didn’t prioritize their governance needs. Consider: Serving a wide range of clients, SharePoint has added functionalities that do nothing for school boards specifically. The past change from Microsoft’s classic library to the “new experience” didn’t solve any problems that school boards faced, but they still had to re-tool. This week’s move to “groupify” by using “site hubs” also provides nothing that school boards can’t get from hosts that are already integrated across platforms. Why would a big-name public website host be any different? For the intranet market that Microsoft prioritizes, losing their public-facing web hosting was a small price to pay, though it left school boards in the lurch.

SharePoint’s recent exodus from public-facing website hosting is more opportunity than crisis.School boards no longer need to settle for website providers that are jacks-of-all-trades. Board-minded third-party vendors with private servers can give them so much more.


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