A SCHOOL BOARD CHAIR
often performs board business at her own office, using her work computer and e-mail address. Her computer is subpoenaed for evidence as part of a lawsuit. Her employer suspends her without pay until the computer is returned.
In another school district, some community members believe the board may be circumventing public meeting laws in their dealing with a contentious issue by discussing the matter through e-mail. The community members demand e-mail messages related to the board’s operations under the state’s Sunshine Laws.
Elsewhere, a parent embroiled in a special education case has e-mailed several board members about her child’s problems. Questions subsequently arise over how board members got involved and again records, including e-mails, are demanded during an investigation.
Electronic communication has simplified people’s lives and enabled greater efficiency. But as the three real scenarios illustrate, it’s also opened up new challenges directly affecting board of education members and school districts. It is too easy to use e-mail to substitute for other, more appropriate ways of doing board business.
As part of our governance structure, school board members are subject to laws requiring the work of the public be done under public scrutiny. Board members routinely use e-mail for everything they do, including their board business.
For various reasons, school districts provide members of their governing boards with e-mail accounts to conduct official business. It is up to superintendents to provide access to the district e-mail accounts and encourage their appropriate use.
Because board members are part of legal processes (directly or indirectly), they may have a conflict of interest when approached by parents or staff members with concerns or requests for assistance. A board member might make a comment that is improper or leads to misinterpretation by the recipient of the e-mail, potentially triggering a legal dispute. When the correspondence takes place through e-mail, there is a permanent record of the exchange. By law, copies of official correspondence must be retained and may be requested as evidence.
If a board member communicated through his or her personal e-mail account, that board member would be expected to make those e-mails available.
Another serious consequence of board members using their personal e-mail accounts is that they cannot take advantage of the school district’s cybersecurity system.
Because school board members are considered public officials, they may be more likely to be the target of a malicious cyberattack. The commercial, over-the-counter security solutions that an individual might buy are not perfect. Normally, school district networks are more secure so using the district server will yield more protection.
Finally, district leadership should make sure board members receive and review the district’s acceptable use (or responsible use) policy when first assigned an e-mail account and granted access to district resources. These ground rules cover what board business is permissible when using the e-mail account and what is not. Board members must understand the consequences of using personal accounts to perform board business (as well as doing personal business on a district-supplied account).
Superintendents would be wise to review board bylaws pertaining to communications, as well. Board members should be subject to the same rules of behavior as anyone else when they are working with a district-provided e-mail account. The same consequences should be in play if a board member violates the rules as any other member of the school community.
A good starting point is to discuss this issue with the school district’s technology coordinator or technology support team before allocating or reallocating e-mail accounts to the board. Training or retraining on proper use of the system ought to follow.
is senior staff associate for field services with the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education.