The Perils of Email

By Kathleen Vail

E-mail has made communicating easier for everyone, and many school board members find it an especially convenient tool. You can hear from your constituents, figure out the logistics of rescheduling a committee meeting, or receive your board informational packet -- all at your own computer.

Convenience and ease can have a downside, however, because e-mail as a medium encourages casual remarks and hasty reactions. School board members who don't use caution could find themselves in hot water with their fellow board members, teachers, and the community. Worse, board members who improperly use e-mail can run afoul of their state open-meetings laws.

E-mail is still relatively new for most of us, and rules and policies haven't quite caught up with use. Your e-mails are not conversations; they are written records, and in some states they are considered to be as public as your monthly board minutes. "The safest thing is to assume that when you communicate with another board member, it's public," said R. Craig Wood, a Charlottesville, Va., attorney who specializes in education law and Internet issues.

Even when your e-mails aren't to other board members, they have a way of ending up in the public domain, whether you intended them to or not. Communicating by e-mail has serious pitfalls for school board members, as you can see from the following examples:

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