Frustrated by the stacks of paper its school board members muddled through during board meetings, the technology department at the Pittsburgh Public Schools devised a plan to enable the board migrate to paperless meetings.

“It drove me nuts when I went to the school board meetings,” said Carole Salisbury, acting director of technology at the Pittsburgh Public Schools. “The public doesn’t know what the board members are talking about. All you see is them shuffling through papers.”

Typical to school board meetings, the agendas are hundreds of pages long and color-coded and board members often scribble notes all over them.

“We said you guys are leaders of this district and if you are going to put out $10.5 million in three years on technology, you have got to be examples,” said Glenn Ponas, acting coordinator of instructional technology.

On June 11, the technology department demonstrated different technologies the board members could use that would not only get rid of the paper cluttering up board meetings but that also would enhance communication among board members. Impressed by the possibilities, the board agreed to learn the new technologies over the summer and by September it aims to be completely paperless.

Board members in Pittsburgh intend to avoid clashes with so-called Sunshine Laws. Such open-meeting laws and rules have tripped up board members elsewhere. In Beaufort County, S.C., for example, the school board ran afoul of the state Sunshine Law by using a private internet bulletin board to discuss school district business. It’s too soon to say whether Pittsburgh’s board will avoid similar tech-induced tangles, but it’s fair to say the board’s critics will be watching.

There will be plenty to see. First, Pittsburgh’s board members will trade in their heavy laptops for smaller, lighter, more powerful notebooks. Salisbury said the district will lease laptops that weigh less than three pounds. As for the old computers, she plans to use those in a laptop-lending pilot program, where students can sign them out from the library.

Not only will the new laptops be light, but they also will be wireless. “Any time [board members] are in the school administration building, they’ll be able to access the network,” Ponas said.

To print and access the internet at home, the board members need simply to plug their computers into docking ports. Currently, the district offers all its employees home internet access through the district’s network. Key to the paperless environment is a separate web site created specifically for the board members. The web site will also feature an area for threaded discussions where board members can chat. “It’s a place where they can engage in informal discussion and ask questions,” Ponas said.

Most importantly, board members and district staff will be able to post items to the web site and access the things they need, Ponas said. Instead of receiving materials in the traditional way, board members will be able to download PDF versions of their agendas and other documents.

This will save district staff from having to photocopy and distribute lengthy documents. Salisbury said the idea is to cut the paperwork. “We won’t be bogged down . . ., and then [all the information will] be archived,” she said.

The software loaded on the laptops will allow board members to make notes directly onto the electronic documents. Microsoft’s Office XP will let them type their own notes in the margin of a document, and even color-code them if they want, Salisbury said. Adobe Acrobat also allows users to enter notes onto files. If board members have questions about specific items, they can copy and paste the items into eMail messages to quickly get a response.

In addition, the school board meeting room will permanently house a digital projection device. Board members will plug their laptops into the projection unit, and as they go to a document, the current page will be displayed on a large screen for everyone to see. With a click of a button, board members will be able automatically to flip to a specific page.

“The nice part is everyone is going to be on the same page,” Salisbury said. “Whatever they’re viewing the public can see it too. If they are looking at page 75, the public is looking at page 75.”

The digital projection device also will allow the board to do video teleconferencing. To illustrate the concept of video-conferencing during the presentation, the technology department arranged for a video teleconference between the board and an executive from Blue Cross Blue Shield. More than just a demonstration, the members actually were able to conduct some business.

If a board member is away at a business meeting across the country, and he or she doesn’t want to miss the school board meeting, that board member will be able to participate through teleconferencing, Salisbury said. The board member merely needs to know how to use a web cam. Every school principal in the district will have a web cam in her or his office and be able to attend meetings with the school board or others virtually.

In addition, board members will be able to sign out digital camcorders and cameras to help them take notes when they visit schools.

“If they see something great or something that isn’t right, they can take their digital camera and take a photo of it,” Salisbury said.

This will help the members explain to the board and public exactly what they mean. During meetings they can show the pictures or play the video for everyone using the digital projector.

Eventually, the technology department hopes to get the board members using personal digital assistants for memos and as a rolodex. “They need to get their feet wet with the basic technology first,” Ponas said.

Links:

Pittsburgh Public Schools
http://www.pps.pgh.pa.us/