I read an article in the the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star today ("Illegal meetings alleged") about the Stafford County School Board backing away from their use of e-mail as a result of a recent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. I think that is an unfortunate turn of events for any government body. School Board business should be open to the public and it should make full use of the Internet (e-mail, websites, blogs, podcasts) to promote community and staff engagement in the business of public education.
Using e-mail for school business does require careful discipline by School Board members. For example, we have to ensure that our electronic communications don't become virtual public meetings (e.g. if three or more school board members were online chatting or e-mailing in a rapid fire manner, that would in my opinion be a public meeting requiring public notice). We also have to keep copies all our e-mails as public documents. Every time a constituent, board member, or school employee sends me a message on school business, that is a public document subject to disclosure under FOIA (note: some e-mails are confidential if they are related to legal issues or personnel matters). Certainly, a public official shouldn't send any e-mail they don't want to read about in the paper the next day.
If you keep guidelines like this in mind, public officials should be able to balance open government requirements with the effective use of the Internet to communicate with their constituents, colleagues, and school employees. In 2005, I helped revise the Albemarle County School Board's policy on Board-Staff Communications to include language covering e-mail communications.
P.S. Thank you to the Virginia Coalition for Open Government for drawing my attention to this article in their daily e-mail newsletter.