Board of education tries going paperless

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Anne Arundel County school board is trying to be make its decision-making process more transparent to the public - and save paper in the process - but few appear to have taken notice.

Two months ago, the board began piloting use of a software program that enables it to run "paperless" board meetings by posting agendas and copious supporting documents on the Internet, saving about 14,000 sheets of paper a month.

But not many people have used the new online service, perhaps because no contentious topics are before the board or because the pilot program began as the school year was ending, said some board members.

Meantime, at least one parent and a legal expert have expressed concern that one of the program's features - not yet implemented by the board - may run afoul of sunshine laws by creating a private forum for people to make comments to board members.

Advocates of the fledgling movement to post board documents online, done by a few dozen school systems in the country, say the service makes it easier for the public to participate.

"This Internet system for Web-based board meetings ... just has tremendous potential," said Carl Smith, executive director of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, which is sponsoring the six-month pilot program in Anne Arundel and hopes the idea catches on statewide. "Everything is out for everybody to see."

But parent Paula Linn, a member of Old Mill High School's Citizens Advisory Committee, said most parents don't know it exists.

"They don't advertise all these new features through the schools, and that's where most people have contact," Linn said.

The site, accessible through the school system's Web page, is hosted by BoardDocs.com, a server run by Georgia-based Emerald Data Solutions.

Supporters say this is the first time members of the public can review, without requesting them, documents such as redistricting proposals, draft contracts and staff reports, days before a board meeting.

Previously, documents for the biweekly board meetings were distributed to about 70 people - board members, high-level schools staff, labor unions, parent volunteer groups and members of the media.

To get the pilot going, the school system bought 12 laptop computers for board members and some staff members and a scanner, at a total cost of about $22,000.

'Electronic alternative'

Most board members said they are pleased about the electronic alternative to unwieldy document packets, despite initial glitches that include problems with passwords and not being able to log on from home computers.

"I kind of like it, myself, because I've got four or five boxes of papers from just this [past] year," said board member Eugene Peterson. "I was thinking I was going to have to take out one of those public storage places to store it all."

Caitlin Heidemann, the board's new student member, said she likes the program's note-taking function, which allows her to superimpose her notes onto documents. "I type faster than I write, so that's easier for me," Heidemann said.

Board President Paul G. Rudolph had reservations, however. "I read my materials not at home, sitting in front of my computer, but when I'm out somewhere waiting for my wife - in other words, to fill up my empty time," he said.

Although board members and many parents applaud making more documentation available on the Internet, some are concerned that a potential feature of the service could let people post comments on the site that would be seen only by board members.

Comments posted on the "sounding board" would not be made public unless a resident or member of the media were to make a formal request to the schools, said Aristides Ioannides, president of the software firm. The feature is still being developed.

Decision-making

It may limit the public's understanding of how board members make decisions, said Abraham Dash, a University of Maryland law professor. "Would members already know what they're going to do [before a board meeting] because they've already heard from all the witnesses?" he asked.

Severna Park parent Jim Snider, who unsuccessfully sought appointment to the school board last year, said he relies on other people's testimony when forming his opinions.

"Public comments should be public," Snider said. "People learn from hearing each other. That's the point of having public discussion."

Ioannides said the feature would give people an alternative way of participating if they cannot attend meetings and is not meant to discourage people from testifying in person.

User complaints

Some people who have used the online service say parts of it are confusing and difficult to navigate.

Annapolis parent Steve Johnson noted that users cannot search for a topic of interest and must click through an entire agenda, item by item, to find what they are looking for.

"I don't know anyone who would have the patience to click on each of these," said parent Linn as she browsed through some of the more than 100 files that made up the school facilities master plan, an item on the board's June 18 agenda.

On computers with cable or network connections, it takes only a few seconds to open a file. On a computer using a dial-up modem, some files take as long as a minute and a half to load. Once the files are opened, they reveal illustrations, photographs and more information than was available in paper versions of the facilities plan.

The Anne Arundel school board is expected to vote in October on whether to convert permanently to paperless meetings, at a cost of about $650 a month. Members said they have not gotten any feedback since the first paperless meeting June 4, other than Snider's objection to the comment feature.

"I am a little surprised by it," board Vice President Anthony J. Spencer said of the lack of response to the new site. He said it may be because schools are not in session. "We'll probably gauge it better once the school year starts," he said.

Board member Michael J. McNelly said he did not know why there was not greater public interest. "All you can do is put the information out there ... and hope that people make use of the product," he said.

For access to the board meetings site, go to http://www.aacps.org/html/BoardOfEducation/ and click on "BoardDocs - Paperless Board Meetings."

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