A Question of Democratic Access

on board
December 6, 2004

By Mark J. Grossman

It’s 1994. Mrs. Jones, a taxpayer, strikes up a conversation at the deli counter with you on a school-related topic. Being a school board member, you respond politely, either addressing the topic or sidestepping it with a neutral reply.

Now, fast forward to 2004. You’re still on the school board, and a somewhat grayer Mrs. Jones wants to raise that same topic with you. You might not be able to see the color of her hair or hear the tone of her voice, though, because she could raise her concern via e-mail.

Does she? Can she? Should she? Does your school district encourage her?

Mrs. Jones may perceive no particular difference between her 1994 chat at the deli and her 2004 e-mail message. She may or may not expect a substantive or detailed e-mail reply, but she probably expects the courtesy of a relatively prompt reply.

My school board in Suffolk County and others across the state are grappling with the question of whether school districts should make it easy for Mrs. Jones to correspond directly with board members via e-mail, and how to satisfy her expectations for a response.

As a public relations professional and school board member, I took a special interest in this vexing, emerging issue. I conducted an informal survey assessing how other districts deal with the question of public access to board members via e-mail.

Using a somewhat hybrid methodology, I was able to get a handle on the practices of 89 districts statewide. I examined 54 Suffolk County school district websites, and I sent a brief survey to fellow members of the New York School Public Relations Association and the Long Island School Public Relations Association. The poll attracted 35 responses, plus several thoughtful comments.

Of the 89 school districts, 16 percent list individual board member’s e-mail addresses on their websites. Another 16 percent list a single “catch-all” board e-mail address on their websites, and the remaining 69 percent list no e-mail address for the board or for individual board members on their websites. (Numbers do not add up to 100 percent due to rounding.)

Some of the reasons cited for not providing individual e-mail addresses include:

  • Citizens can contact members by other means. Some districts give no e-mail addresses on their websites but provides board member home addresses and phone numbers on school calendars disseminated district-wide.
  • Expectation of a speedy reply. One district offering no email address said that “email seems to encourage … unrealistic expectations — particularly the expectation of an instant answer to often very complex questions.”
  • Consistency of response. One district lists a single e-mail address to avoid “individual board members answering on their own at different times…in the same way the board president usually serves as [board] spokesperson.”
  • Civility. Providing a single e-mail address for the board on the district website serves to “minimize personal invective.” People say things online that they would never dream of saying in person.

Our board debated these and other ramifications of providing e-mail access to board members. Presumably, for instance, messages sent to a single email address would be shared with all board members.

Or perhaps not? One upstate community relations director “filters” e-mail messages before passing them along to board members. Is that good policy?

And does the absence of an e-mail address squelch citizens’ right to express themselves?

Ultimately, my district decided to go low-tech. We list no e-mail address on our website.

As elected officials, maybe we’re learning that online communications actually puts some limits on our accountability to our constituents. And, in fact, most school districts in New York State seem to feel that way.

For those of us choosing to curtail e-mail access, perhaps this obliges us to redouble our commitment to remaining open to taxpayer feedback through traditional channels. At board meetings … on the telephone … and at the deli counter.

Mark J. Grossman, of East Patchogue, is a member of South Country Central School District board of education, in Suffolk County. He is a principal of a government and public relations firm in Bohemia, NY.

On Board, December 6, 2004, Page 6