Anyone who has had to prepare materials for a school board meeting, and has killed a few dozen trees and hours of staff time in the process, will applaud the latest trend in school board governance: paperless meetings.

Once little more than a pipe dream–especially for smaller, cash-strapped districts–paperless school board meetings are becoming more accessible and affordable, thanks in part to a new suite of online services offered by school board associations and private companies alike.

The Georgia School Boards Association (GSBA), for example, unveiled a beefed-up model of its web-based eBoard tool at its state conference in June.

eBoard provides school board members with easy online access to meeting agendas, minutes, presentations, support materials, and policies.

The feature I really like, however, is the ability to track goals and to see how agenda items and school board decisions tie to a district’s strategic plan and performance measures.

Another nifty feature is the ability to search Georgia laws and codes governing school districts and school board policy manuals from other GSBA member districts.

Administrators submit agenda items and materials directly to eBoard and then access those materials online–streamlining the agenda building and review process, as well as cutting back on photocopies and distribution.

Standard, rolling, or carry-over agenda items can be imported from one meeting to another. A “sticky notes” feature enables school board members to make their notes online during presentations.

School board members submit questions or ask for recognition to speak online as well, making it easier for school board chairpersons to manage discussions and keep the meeting on track. Last-minute agenda changes and substitute motions are handled easily online, too, and are immediately available to the public for viewing via the internet.

Votes are registered online, and meeting minutes are entered directly into the system, providing the public and the media with instantaneous access–a significant boon for districts that might be months behind in transcribing and posting meeting minutes.

The software also provides printable versions for school board members and administrators who prefer to have hard copies to review.

Because the software is web-based, districts don’t have to purchase another web browser or server. Security measures can be tailored to meet each district’s needs and system requirements.

Since its debut in 2001, more than 50 school boards and governmental agencies have started using eBoard, including the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the Georgia Board of Education, and the Colorado Board of Education.

The cost for GSBA members is $4,500 with no sign-up fee, and it includes training for a district’s school board members and staff. Non-member pricing also is available.

The Texas Association of School Boards (TASB) offers a similar product, called BoardBook, which includes links to TASB’s “best practices”–including decision-making processes, parliamentary procedure, the Texas Open Meetings Act, and other tools.

Both systems offer a searchable electronic archive of meeting packets that is created and formatted automatically.

Technical requirements for BoardBook are pretty basic, including at least a Pentium II, 266-megahertz processor (a Pentium III is recommended), 64 megabytes of memory, a CD readable/writable drive (required for distribution of documents via CD), and a scanner with the ability to deliver scanned documents as PDF files.

BoardBook also requires high-speed internet access (a DSL, cable, or T1 connection is recommended) for the compiler or board secretary, and at least dial-up access for school board members.

Software requirements are pretty standard, as well. The system requires Microsoft Windows 95 or newer, Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.5 or newer, and Adobe Acrobat 5.0 or higher. (The free program will allow viewing only, not note-taking or annotations.)

A private company, Electronic School Board, offers a similar paperless meeting solution with 256-bit encryption for confidential information.

During the meeting preparation phase, the Electronic School Board automatically sends materials to identified administrators and school board members for their review, revisions, and approval and then sends them the revised versions of documents once they have been updated.

Like the other paperless systems, Electronic School Board works well for a variety of meeting formats, including work sessions and executive sessions. Annual subscription rates start at $6,700 for 1,000 students.

The cost savings reaped by web-based board meeting tools and services can be significant.

An article by Joan Randall in the May 2005 issue of the Texas Lone Star magazine estimated that one to six staff members spend about 40 to 50 hours each preparing the typical school board packet of 150 to 500 pages.

Add in printing, mailing, and courier costs, and a few thousand dollars seems like a pretty wise investment for an easy-to-use system that doesn’t require strong technical skills on the part of school board members or staff.

Most systems–including the three mentioned in this article–allow districts to phase in paperless meetings gradually.

Districts can begin simply by compiling the packets and information electronically, then printing out traditional hard copies once the agenda and materials have been finalized.

Just this step alone can save hundreds of hours of staff time, as well as printing costs. Randall notes the buy-in of the school board secretary or whoever compiles the meeting packets is critical, however. She recommends having the compiler attend a software demonstration to get comfortable with the proposed tools and processes.

Most secretaries respond enthusiastically to the easy-to-use formats and templates, which include automatic pagination and other easy access to relevant board policies and regulations.

These tools can ease meeting preparation headaches for administrative staff, who might spend three hours or more searching minutes or files for information from previous meetings, according to Randall.

For districts that want to conduct true paperless school board meetings, an additional investment in technology might be required to equip the meeting room or chamber with laptops and high-speed internet access.

These systems also can be integrated with a district’s cable television channel and streamed live to district web sites.

Links: Electronic School Board http://www.electronicschoolboard.com

Georgia School Boards Association http://www.gsba.com

Texas School Boards Association http://www.tasb.org

Nora Carr is chief communications officer for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. She is nationally recognized for her work in educational communications.

Technical requirements for BoardBook are pretty basic, including at least a Pentium II, 266-megahertz processor (a Pentium III is recommended), 64 megabytes of memory, a CD readable/writable drive (required for distribution of documents via CD), and a scanner with the ability to deliver scanned documents as PDF files.

BoardBook also requires high-speed internet access (a DSL, cable, or T1 connection is recommended) for the compiler or board secretary, and at least dial-up access for school board members.

Software requirements are pretty standard, as well. The system requires Microsoft Windows 95 or newer, Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.5 or newer, and Adobe Acrobat 5.0 or higher. (The free program will allow viewing only, not note-taking or annotations.)

A private company, Electronic School Board, offers a similar paperless meeting solution with 256-bit encryption for confidential information.

During the meeting preparation phase, the Electronic School Board automatically sends materials to identified administrators and school board members for their review, revisions, and approval and then sends them the revised versions of documents once they have been updated.

Like the other paperless systems, Electronic School Board works well for a variety of meeting formats, including work sessions and executive sessions. Annual subscription rates start at $6,700 for 1,000 students.

The cost savings reaped by web-based board meeting tools and services can be significant.

An article by Joan Randall in the May 2005 issue of the Texas Lone Star magazine estimated that one to six staff members spend about 40 to 50 hours each preparing the typical school board packet of 150 to 500 pages.

Add in printing, mailing, and courier costs, and a few thousand dollars seems like a pretty wise investment for an easy-to-use system that doesn’t require strong technical skills on the part of school board members or staff.

Most systems–including the three mentioned in this article–allow districts to phase in paperless meetings gradually.

Districts can begin simply by compiling the packets and information electronically, then printing out traditional hard copies once the agenda and materials have been finalized.

Just this step alone can save hundreds of hours of staff time, as well as printing costs. Randall notes the buy-in of the school board secretary or whoever compiles the meeting packets is critical, however. She recommends having the compiler attend a software demonstration to get comfortable with the proposed tools and processes.

Most secretaries respond enthusiastically to the easy-to-use formats and templates, which include automatic pagination and other easy access to relevant board policies and regulations.

These tools can ease meeting preparation headaches for administrative staff, who might spend three hours or more searching minutes or files for information from previous meetings, according to Randall.

For districts that want to conduct true paperless school board meetings, an additional investment in technology might be required to equip the meeting room or chamber with laptops and high-speed internet access.

These systems also can be integrated with a district’s cable television channel and streamed live to district web sites.

Links: Electronic School Board http://www.electronicschoolboard.com

Georgia School Boards Association http://www.gsba.com

Texas School Boards Association http://www.tasb.org

Nora Carr is chief communications officer for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. She is nationally recognized for her work in educational communications.