North Dakota school boards can use telephone and videoconferencing equipment to form a quorum at board meetings, the state’s attorney general has ruled.

In response to a query from a member of the Grand Forks school board, state Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said in a Jan. 2 letter of opinion that North Dakota’s Century Code does not imply that board members have to be physically present to form a quorum, only that they have to be in a position to be able to transact business.

Though the Grand Forks school board said it would resort to such technology measures only out of necessity, the interpretation of the law raises the question of whether school boards nationwide may use technology to automate, aid, and accelerate the politics of school decision-making.

School boards pondering such a move should approach with caution. While Stenehjem’s opinion paves the way for boards in North Dakota to enact the use of video and telephone conferencing technologies at meetings, his interpretation does not speak to the legality of such practices from coast to coast, warned National School Boards Association staff attorney Naomi Gittins.

Public-meetings laws do not transcend state borders, Gittins said. “It depends on what the state statute says,” she explained. The safest way for a school board to ensure it does not violate the law is to read carefully individual statutes and to seek comment from legal authorities. “Grand Forks certainly did the right thing by going first to the attorney general,” she added.

In North Dakota, the law states that a majority of school board members must be present to form a quorum. The Grand Forks school board is composed of nine members, meaning at least five must be on hand for a vote.

“The main reason we made the inquiry was to find out what we could do if we got into a bind,” said school board member C.T. Marhula. “Could we round up enough members somehow to make a quorum?”

The question posed to the attorney general was raised as a precautionary measure to ensure that if a quorum could not be reached, school board members could be brought in by way of telephone or computer.

Marhula, who spearheaded the inquiry, said he doesn’t think it will ever get to the point—at least in Grand Forks—where board members will communicate solely through technology channels. “We have excellent attendance at school board meetings,” he said.

But Grand Forks isn’t the only school board in the state that has expressed an interest in using technology to bring its members together.

Barb Norby, director of policy services for the North Dakota School Boards Association, said she has received at least three calls in the last year from different school boards asking whether it would be possible to form a quorum via telephone conferencing.

“We were pleased that the opinion came out the way it did, because there had been some discussion about what was the appropriate way to form a quorum,” she said.

Norby said the state school boards association views the technology option as particularly beneficial to members of rural school boards, who are forced to travel several miles to be present at scheduled meetings.

“Because of the distances that some board members have to drive, it certainly would make sense,” she said.

Nationally, some school boards already are using technology as a way to form quorums and conduct school business.

For instance, The Hill School, a private high school in Pottstown, Pa., has been using technology to conduct board meetings for years.

“As long as there is an equal option for the public to participate between the distance links, I think it’s great. With busy schedules—and often unpaid board members—it’s difficult to insist on their physical presence … [and] this way is better than their not being able to be at the meeting at all,” said Rick Bauer, the school’s chief information officer.

A private institution, The Hill School isn’t subject to the same statutes as public schools. And in public education, the short history of electronic school board meetings is clouded by legal resistance.

When the Marysville, Calif., school board attempted to meet via telephone with one of its members recently, the idea was shot down, said Superintendent Marc Liebman.

“We tried to do this via phone line a few years ago when one of our members was pregnant and confined to bed,” he said. “Our counsel told us that we could do it only if we opened the board members’ homes to people who wished to attend the board meeting. Obviously, that was not a reasonable alternative.”

Educators who spoke with eSchool News expressed mixed opinions about how the evolution of technology-driven school board meetings might play out on a national scale.

“While I think most board members would have good intentions and use the virtual participation out of necessity, there would no doubt be some unscrupulous ones who would use that format to not have to face the public,” said Bob Moore, executive director of information technology services for the Blue Valley Unified School District in Kansas. “For me, the huge issue here is, how would the public participate in the world of virtual meetings?”

“If the option is not used as an attempt to bypass open-meeting laws, it can be a valuable way to let school boards conduct business efficiently in some emergency situations,” said Raymond Yeagley, superintendent of the Rochester School District in New Hampshire. “If the opinion is written in a way that will permit boards to exclude anyone from a public meeting, then I believe it will be challenged and reversed.”

Links:

National School Boards Association
http://www.nsba.org

North Dakota School Boards Association
http://www.ndsba.org

North Dakota Office of the Attorney General
http://www.ag.state.nd.us