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Paperless, Property Taxes, and the Price of Progress

Nebraska. The Good Life. Middle of nowhere? No, in the middle of it all. A state made up of metropolitan areas, the plains, sandhills, reservations and dramatic rock formations. The name itself means “flat water” after the Platte River which runs west to east through the state.

It is the home of Arbor Day, so you could say Nebraskans know a little about trees. Planting them. Caring for them. And doing our part to save them. More on that in a moment.

Nebraska has 1.9 million people living in 531 communities. It has around 312,000 students attending 250 public school districts ranging from enrollments of almost 53,000 students to 73.

Nebraskans love their public schools. So much so you likely won’t go a day in this state without seeing someone in their I “heart” Public Schools t-shirt. That said, Nebraska ranks 49th in its financial support of public schools, with only 33% of the funding coming from the state while the national average is 47%. This translates to schools in Nebraska receiving half of their funding from local property taxes, compared to the national average of 29%.

What does this mean? It means that Nebraska’s 1,724 locally elected school board members serving these 250 districts must keep a keen eye on their spending, so as not to generate a narrative, right or wrong, that school spending is the cause of what are currently much higher than average property taxes in the state.

Nebraska hasn’t found its coal, oil, or mega-theme park tourist attraction yet to generate ridiculous amounts of state revenue. What Nebraska does have is valuable agricultural land. What Nebraska also has right now, are lower than average commodity prices. A bad combination.

Enter the state school boards association, always looking for efficiencies and ways to save their members money while enhancing deliverables, who implemented an idea to do just that. This is the story of paperless board meetings.  

Back in the olden days, those 1,724 board members went through an exorbitant amount of paper. Time and money was spent creating and assembling board packets, minutes, handouts, additional versions, you name it. Not to mention countless papercuts.

Archived minutes were bound and filed away only to become that needle in a haystack if and when they needed to be referenced down the road.  

All of that changed in 2012 when the Nebraska Association of School Boards, through their wholly owned, for-profit C-Corporation Sparq Data Solutions, created and implemented an online system of paperless board meeting software to streamline the process electronically, freeing up the board’s hands and minds by giving them instant, online access before, during and after each meeting.

Designed with the school board specifically in mind, this user-friendly service is intuitive enough for the tech-savvy 20-something serving their metropolitan district, to the 43-year veteran of the board serving their rural school district. Have laptop, will travel. Piles and files of paper are now streamlined digitally, instantly archiving information from past meetings, not only for the board and their meetings, but for the public to access as well.

Now, five years later, over half of Nebraska’s districts are running their board meetings through this paperless system, including the state’s two largest districts, Omaha Public Schools (52,836) and Lincoln Public Schools (41,737).

One of the newer districts to utilize what is now branded as Sparq Meetings is Raymond Central Public Schools.

Raymond Central is a growing, rural district, about 30 minutes from Lincoln, Nebraska’s capital city, with just under 700 students, and an operating budget of $9.5 million dollars. They have a fairly new, but progressive board, and a superintendent in his first year at the district.

A casual meeting for coffee and discussions with the board, superintendent and other users of the system quickly generated a common theme. Agendas. Ease. Access.

Oh, and paper. No more lugging around packets of paper. No longer wasting tons of paper. There was a sense of pride and progress in having sound environmental policy and becoming a greener district.  

Across the board, there was an agreement that progressing to a paperless system was one of the better moves they could have made, on multiple fronts, with one school board member emphatically stating, “Awesome system!”

Hearing that, we had to get more insight on just how awesome the agendas, ease and access were.

Agendas

“It is a one-stop-shop.”

Agendas are posted by the administrative staff the Friday before the district’s board meetings, giving the board time to look everything over during the weekend. Minutes are kept in time, electronically by the district secretary, with the board president navigating the system. “I could not imagine creating or running a meeting without it,” said Superintendent Derrick Joel. “It is a one-stop-shop for all documents, rationale, voting, agendas, minutes, etc. Using the paperless system has saved the cost of paper and time preparing the agenda with all supporting documents.”

Board President, Dr. Harriet Gould echoed those sentiments, “Dr. Joel and I collaborate on the agenda and have a format that we've adapted to fit our district. I really like the transparency we can offer our patrons with this format.”

Ease

“The more you use it the easier it becomes.”

The ease of getting the information prior to each meeting in an easy to manage electronic form has become a huge asset to the Raymond Central board. Comments and notes can simply be added into the system itself vs being handwritten into an already bound packet prior to, or as the meeting progresses. Said one board member, “I was skeptical at first, but am now sold on it!”

Access

“We sometimes would not get the board packet until the night of. Things are in the fly.”

From the board room, your home, the office, harvesting a field, or relaxing on a tropical island, if you have a computer, smartphone, or tablet, you have access to Sparq Meetings. Anyone with a device can follow along. With the click of a button, the meeting is published and open for the public to view on the school website. That was not always the case.

“I know firsthand the amount of time we used to spend on pulling the Board packet together,” said Dr. Gould. “It took the superintendent's secretary so much time and then she either mailed them or delivered them to our homes. This system can be built and saved to the agenda from one meeting to the next. We've saved reams of paper, administrative assistant time in copying the packet information and then collating it, mailing or driving it to school board members’ homes. It is saving the district time and dollars!”

“When I came onto the board, I couldn't understand why we hadn't gone to this format. I encouraged the district to look into this,” said Lori Springer, Board of Education Secretary. “In my opinion, we made an excellent decision for all involved! The creators put in a lot of thought and made a product that caters to individuals who come from all skill levels in regard to technology.”

Awesome indeed. To see how changing the way just one board conducts their business has impacted the district and a community like this is refreshing. From skepticism to smooth sailing, Raymond Central now has six boards members, energized, engaged, and working with their administration to better serve the students within their buildings, by breaking down the barriers of time and transparency, allowing more time for productive meetings. The time, cost and ease versus a previous system of paper is invaluable, and definitely worth the price of progress.

This article brought to you by Sparq Data Solutions

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