School board delays decision on documents

Members split over relying on Internet information

Pilot program under way

President calls system too slow to be convenient

Anne Arundel

December 04, 2003|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

Facing opposition from its president, the Anne Arundel County Board of Education postponed yesterday a decision on whether to become one of the first school boards in Maryland to rely heavily on Internet documents in conducting its meetings.

The delay revealed a division among board members on adopting BoardDocs, an Internet service that the board has been trying out to save paper and to give the public access to meeting agendas and supporting documents.

Board President Paul G. Rudolph, who said he finds the system inconvenient, asked to put off the issue because only five of eight board members were present. It takes five affirmative votes to carry a motion.

"I felt that it should have the discussion of the full board," Rudolph said after the meeting. "Since I'm against it, I did not want to take an unfair advantage of the situation."

Other board members who support the system protested the delay. "I have some real reservations about not acting on this," Eugene Peterson said. "We've talked about being transparent about everything we do."

Peterson said it is not fair to let the public become used to looking up meeting information on the Web and then take away the service.

Anne Arundel County, which was chosen by the Maryland Association of Boards of Education to pilot the program, was the first in the state to go online. The Frederick County school board has also purchased the program, according to Emerald Data Solutions, the company that operates BoardDocs.

Anne Arundel spent $22,000 on laptop computers and other materials to get the pilot program started. It would cost $650 a month to subscribe.

Rudolph said he finds it difficult to pay attention to speakers during meetings while scrolling through documents on his laptop computer. And he said BoardDocs is convenient only for people with high-speed Internet access.

The board began the pilot program in May. It allows residents to view documents about a week before each meeting. In the past, only board members, top-level school administrators, labor union officials, parent volunteer groups and members of the news media received paper copies of the agenda and supporting materials.

BoardDocs was not widely used in the first few months. But Emerald Data Solutions, based in Georgia, reported a spike in the number of users this school year.

In the seven days before a mid-October board meeting, the company reported 999 hits on the site, accessible through the school system's Web page.

Several other board members have said they support using BoardDocs permanently. A vote on the matter was scheduled for the next meeting, Dec. 17.

Rudolph also said he is concerned about unforeseen costs of the service, such as the staff labor it takes to scan documents into the system. "What other hidden charges are there that I'm not aware of?" he said after the meeting.

In other business yesterday, the board ratified revised contracts with two employee unions. The contracts with the unions representing school principals and blue-collar workers include a 1 percent cost-of-living raise. The board offered the increase in lieu of a 3 percent raise the county cut in the spring to balance its budget.

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