Wary of violating their states’ open-meetings laws, some public school officials are looking to limit the volume and content of the eMail messages they send each other–even as other school employees are increasingly turning to eMail to enhance communication.
Victor Begg, a trustee with the Bloomfield Hills, Mich., school district, asked his fellow trustees at a recent board meeting to consider a policy that discourages board members from discussing public matters via eMail.
"If it involves a discussion that requires consensus, it becomes a matter of violating the [state] Open Meetings Act," Begg told The Detroit News for a Jan. 3 story.
"It’s an efficient form of communication if we have to poll each other about when to meet," Begg said of electronic correspondence. But "the crux of my argument is for us not to discuss too much over eMail."
The matter hasn’t come up for discussion in Bloomfield Hills again, but eMail exchanges between trustees have cooled down since he first brought the issue up at the board meeting, Begg said.
Begg isn’t the only public official concerned about eMail communication between members of a public school or government body. City councils and school boards around the country are dealing with issues of eMail and internet communication in the absence of laws that address newer technology.
Research by the Marion Brechner Citizen Access Project at the University of Florida found that 45 states fail to address the use of eMail in their public-records laws. In eight states, experts say, laws without eMail provisions could preclude citizen access, according to the research.
At Michigan’s Troy City Schools, board members passed a policy last year that limits to the bare minimum eMail discussions among board members.
"We’re very concerned about the Open Meetings Act and that we conduct ourselves in a way that doesn’t violate it," said Troy City Schools board President Tony Spagnola.
Spagnola said there is ample consensus on this matter, which has been covered in training and conferences regarding the conduct of school boards.
Dawn Phillips Hertz, an attorney for the Michigan Press Association, said there has been a longtime concern about public bodies’ communication outside of public meetings. The issue becomes more complicated when it involves technology.
"eMail is deadly," said Phillips Hertz. "We are used to hitting reply and to forward [messages]. When you talk about the Open Meetings Act, you might try not to violate the law, but if you send an eMail to other board members and then one of those two forwards it to a third and a fourth, you’ve got a quorum participating in a discussion."
When using eMail, school board members must consider the open-records and open-meetings laws as they are written in their particular state or municipality, said Lisa Soronen, a staff attorney for the National School Boards Association (NSBA).
"A lot of these laws are vastly different," she said, adding that what is required of public officials in one state might differ from that in another.
To make sure everyone is "on the same page," Soronen recommends that school board members and other public officials consult their state attorneys general and work together to develop a plan for dealing with the use of eMail in the public domain.
The idea, she said, is to come up with a process "that everyone is involved in."
Marion Brechner Citizen Access Project
National School Boards Association