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School board ponders social media blackout

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School board ponders social media blackout
Farmington Minnesota P.O. Box 192 / 312 Oak St. 55024

Farmington School Board members want to know if tweeting is best left to the birds.

Veronica Walter raised the issue of board members using social media services like Twitter and Facebook during a March 8 discussion of a board conduct policy. She said the topic of social media has come up a lot lately in conversations she's had with school board members both in Farmington and in other districts. Walter and other board members are concerned about knowing just what the rules are with an increasingly popular method of communication.

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"I just want to be careful as board members that we aren't overstepping our bounds with open meeting laws," Walter said. "We dance very dangerously on the edge of being inappropriate with comments. That things can be misread."

Social media is a broad term, but it's typically used to refer to services like Twitter and Facebook or to online blogs.

Walter said she was most concerned that a message posted online by one board member might be taken by the general public as the opinion of the entire board, and that board members might post information that is not supposed to be available to the public.

Board members are already restricted from sharing certain types of information -- about some personnel decisions, for example -- but Walter said social media outlets present a particular concern.

"Now there's a tangible record of it," she said. "I'm trying to find out where the lines are."

Three other board members echoed some of Walter's concerns. But board member Tim Burke argued the district can't shy away from new ways of communicating with the public. He called using social media "the price of doing business" in the modern world.

"You can't put the genie back in the bottle," Burke said. "I just find it very disturbing that people think that it is a good thing to tell people they can't talk about public policy."

The district itself has jumped into social media. A District 192 Twitter account (twitter.com/district192) was being followed by 306 people as of Tuesday afternoon and an account for FHS sports (twitter.com/isd192athletics) has 26 followers. Board members were less concerned about those accounts because they are intended to represent the district as a whole and they distribute only news, not opinion.

Burke is clearly the most active user of social media among board. His Twitter account, which mixes personal and professional messages with comments on district issues, has 2,829 followers. He's also started a blog on which he comments on district matters.

Among other board members, only Julie Singewald has a Twitter account, though she has posted only one message. Walter has a Facebook page but said it is strictly for personal use.

"I've got nothing with people using them. That's fine," Walter said. "(But) where is the line if we overstep?"

Walter planned to meet this week with representatives from the Minnesota School Boards Association to talk about any risks associated with social media. MSBA communication director Greg Abbott said Tuesday the group does not have a policy specifically about social media because it views all forms of communication the same way.

"Someone's blog is really no different than someone writing an op ed. You just have to follow the same rules," he said. "If you violate the data practices law by telling someone something you shouldn't tell them, it's no different."

The board will discuss the social media issue as well as the larger board conduct policy at its next regular meeting March 22.

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Nathan Hansen
Nathan Hansen has been a reporter and editor with the Farmington Independent and the Rosemount Town Pages since 1997. He is very tall.
(651) 460-6606
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