Choosing school board management software may seem a simple matter: Just get something cheap with an online platform to post agendas and minutes of board meetings and you’re good to go. That approach is a formula for buyer’s remorse. School boards that have lived with their board management software for a while suggest several crucial features that make all the difference. The best such software addresses 10 key considerations:
Digitizing board materials provides greater security than keeping paper copies. Any software increases document protection in that way, but not all keep the highly sensitive board information safe from the hackers who are eager to hijack materials to commit identity theft or to demand a ransom for their return. Cybersecurity requires maximal encryption of documents and storage in a protected location.
Software offers three levels of protection: 0-bit encryption, 128-bit encryption or 256-bit encryption. Anything less than 256-bit encryption is not enough; more encryption creates more obstacles that hackers would have to break through to reach data.
To further deter hackers, the software should store the school board’s files on a private, cloud-based server. Data stored on the cloud without a private server is easy to penetrate. Most popular file-sharing apps store data that way.
The school board must publicly post meeting agendas before a meeting date, typically 72 hours prior. It must also post meeting minutes after they’re approved. Most software can make that possible.
The best software, though, adds features that enhance transparency further. Ideally, it empowers the school board to provide links on the agenda to the reading materials referenced. Doing so saves the labor, stress and expense of mailing out board packets. It also lets the public come to meetings more prepared. In addition, great software lets the school board supplement meeting minutes with footage of meetings in their entirety.
If the public can see meeting materials in advance, just like the board does, a risk arises: What if the public sees the highly sensitive confidential details that the board must see? Good software keeps the documents for the different audiences consistently segregated with role-base authorization, which makes different versions of the same document appear when different users click on the same tab: Board members access a version of documents that includes confidential information, while members of the public pull up a scrubbed version of those documents devoid of such details.
When board-portal software provides the platform for the public-facing website, it needs to keep that material accessible in the multitudinous ways that ADA Section 508 requires, with adaptations for users with sensory, motor or cognitive disabilities that far exceed mere deafness or blindness.
The buyer’s questions become: Does the software manufacturer know the most recent iteration of the regulations? And: Do they provide adequate accommodations? Some software requirements claim ADA compliance when their product does not actually provide it.
The school board itself will need training to use the software (and overcome sloppy habits) so that cybersecurity is not compromised. After all, they handle more sensitive information than anybody else, and they are ultimately responsible for data breaches—most of which are caused by human error.
Still, school boards often get no training in using their software to keep data secure. A 2017 NSBA survey of 482 members of representative school districts found that 67% of respondents sit on school boards that require no cybersecurity-related training whatsoever; 26% of them have no idea if their board requires such training; and only 12% have received mandatory cybersecurity training. Of those, 40% receive it only once, and 60% receive it once a year.
The gold standard is to include cybersecurity training in new board members’ onboarding process, require it of the entire board four times a year (or at least two times a year), and reinforce it at meetings with tabletop exercises. The trainer should be an IT/IS officer or a qualified outside consultant. The software company should provide webinars, videos and manuals that help individual board members learn the system and handle issues as questions arise in their daily practice.
With the right software, it’s possible to kill two birds with one stone: storing meeting materials to satisfy sunshine laws while also storing public records to meet the accessibility requirements of the state’s public records act.
The key is an online archive. On it, a district can store all of its founding documents, historical records, legislation, policies, budgets, RFPs, maps—any documents that become a matter of public record. Digitizing public records is a requirement of more and more states as each adapts to new technological possibilities.
Using the board management software for public records pays handsomely. By integrating these functions, the school board can provide links in the agenda to any historical documents that help participants prepare for meetings. Since public records can be voluminous, it is important to choose software that does not charge incrementally beyond a certain amount of storage.
With the best software, school boards can even make public records—as well as past minutes and agendas—searchable by keyword. Researchers, historians and journalists can find just what they’re looking for. Constituents can also dig deeper on issues they care about as they prepare for school board meetings.
Most school boards have survived the frustrating process of creating a document as a group. Version 1 goes out by email. Both Mary and Bob make edits to Version 1, creating two different documents. Both of them call their new document “Version 2.” The other readers then don’t know if one “Version 2” has incorporated the changes suggested in the other “Version 2.” The confusion only snowballs as more people contribute.
Good board management software keeps everybody on the same page. When any board member suggests changes to a document, the document on the board portal refreshes in real time so that future commenters all see the first contributor’s remarks. Those remarks are furthermore date stamped and color coded to identify the person making the suggestions. A super-editor can have sole authorization to decide when to selectively accept changes.
Email communications are wholly unencrypted and therefore easy to penetrate. Serial emails can also inadvertently create a rolling quorum, violating public meeting laws if a majority of the board deliberates on a matter—even if they do so sequentially. Smart school boards ban emails, having board members communicate through the board portal or over a special-issue secure text app, which comes bundled with the best board management software.
Texas now requires underperforming districts to track the amount of time spent directly pursuing student-centered goals spelled out in the school board’s strategic plan; the practice characterizes some of the most effective districts in the country. The sheer accounting required, though, surpasses any human’s ability, as so many stakeholders devote time to reach those goals. Great school board management software can convert the daily schedules of multiple actors into barometers of how far the district has come in its efforts to hit targets. School board members can see a graphic display of that progress every time they access the board portal.
These 10 considerations help a school board choose board management software that continues to delight them by solving a host of problems that they routinely face. Using the best tools, the school board can reach new levels of transparency, responsibility and productivity. Public confidence grows, and greater community engagement ensues. The community as a whole provides a more professional, supportive context for students, who are now that much more likely to excel.