School board hears of 'eMeetings'

Friday, March 25, 2011

A service that can allow the school board to hold paperless meetings was explained to board members Tuesday at a work session.

Randy Bennett, associate executive director and legal counsel for the Tennessee School Boards Association, gave a demonstration of the "eMeeting" program.

Instead of bringing an armful of papers to each meeting, all a board member would need is a laptop, or even an iBook, and access to the Internet. After logging on to the secure site, a board member can access the agenda of the current meeting, read supporting documents, and make reminder notes for themselves.

The board secretary - in Marshall County's case, Rhonda Poole - can manage the agenda as the meeting progresses, record the votes, and prepare the minutes.

eMeeting also allows users to search minutes of previous meetings, and use links to state law, the board's online policy manual, and the TSBA Web site.

"It's easy to use if you're at all comfortable on the Internet," Bennett said. He explained that training to use eMeeting takes two or three hours for Central Office staffers who would be administering it, and just 30 to 40 minutes for board members.

eMeeting is backed up on servers in Kentucky. In fact, Bennett said, it is backed up twice to be absolutely secure.

As far as public records go, paper copies of board meeting minutes can be kept at Central Office, or members of the public can be allowed to access the eMeeting program on a Central Office computer.

Bedford County schools started using eMeeting two months ago, and Putnam County is considering it very seriously, Bennett said. Other county school systems that have been using it for longer include Shelby, Lauderdale, Wilson, Cumberland, and Morgan.

"It's starting to pick up lately as people look at saving paper," Bennett said. "Almost everybody decides they want it, and they seem really pleased when they use it."

The idea of saving paper was what got Marshall County school board members thinking about using something like eMeeting. "We've killed another three trees" became a standard response to Poole passing out packets of documents at their meetings.

"It seems like a good thing," said technology supervisor Suzanne Ingram. Board member Barbara Kennedy asked Ingram if Marshall County could develop its own version of the program and avoid paying the fee to TSBA. Ingram explained that Rutherford County had done just that, but, in her opinion, it did not offer "the same functionality and ease of use."

Ingram went on to say her technicians would have to install an access point in the boardroom if all members would want to get online at the same time. She estimated the cost of this at $500. TSBA charges a school district $1,500 to get started with eMeeting, and an annual fee of $1,000 begins to be payable a year later.

"I think it's something we need to pursue," Curt Denton said after the TSBA representatives left.

"It's real interesting," chairman Mike Keny agreed.

Board members asked Ingram to research the cost of cheap laptops or iPads for all of them. Ingram noted she would recommend adding a keyboard if iPads were chosen.

Meanwhile, formulating next year's budget begins with a meeting of Donnie Moses' budget committee on April 4, and adopting eMeeting will probably be part of those discussions.