School board’s broadcast policy questioned
Wagner says public input at meetings not a public platform
By John Faucher
Two months after the New London School District reinstated broadcasting regular board meetings, several community members and one board member accused it of “not being transparent.”
A brief history
The New London School District was one of the first in the area to broadcast its meetings for the public nearly three decades ago.
At that time meeting broadcasts were made possible through a partnership with the city of New London Cable Access TV Channel.
Last year, when the city’s cable producer Richard Johnson retired from the city, the school district did not have the equipment or staff available to continue recording and broadcasting the meetings.
The practice was temporarily suspended.
In November the district purchased its own camera system and once again began airing meetings on the district’s YouTube channel.
In December several parents and community members attended board meetings and spoke during public forums prior to the meeting.
They expressed their concerns about school schedules and not having students in school five days a week for face-to-face learning.
When some parents found out the public forum portion was not recorded for broadcast they became upset and accused the district of not being transparent or “trying to hide something.”
Historically the public forum portion of regular monthly board meetings have never been recorded or broadcast. Board policy 822.1, which has been in place since the late ‘90s, states “Public forum will not be videotaped for broadcasting when sensitive issues concerning personnel or students are presented.”
School Board President Terry Wagner addressed the subject of public forum procedures at the Jan. 6 regular board meeting.
“This agenda item was placed here by Mr. Bleck and me because the last several months we’ve had quite a few people speak in our public forum which is a wonderful thing,” said Wagner.
He said it’s the community’s opportunity to share their thoughts with the board on any topic, but it’s not a platform intended for them to speak to the entire community.
Wager offered reasoning on why the public form is not broadcast.
“We have had circumstances in the past where a citizen has chosen to use public forum to address an issue they have with a teacher or another individual in our school community. That’s highly unfair,” said Wagner.
“In the past we’ve heard those complaints and dealt with them appropriately. But it’s very unfair to have somebody accused of something when they have no recourse or way to defend themselves. By the time that happens that statement is now out in the public community,” said Wager.
“And at times it can be highly detrimental to the person who has been accused.”
He explained that is why the board has a policy regarding public forum and it is not required to broadcast that portion of the meeting.
District Administrator Scott Bleck referenced board policy 187 regarding public participation at board meetings and policy 822.1 regarding videotaping meetings.
“I appreciate the public forum. It is a critical piece for all of us to learn, understand and grow as we move forward to help direct us on our focuses,” Bleck said.
But he asked board members to consider the ramifications that could occur if a student or minor spoke on an issue during public forum that was broadcast.
“Fast forward 20 to 30 years down the road and that same child or individual is advancing a career for whatever that directive might be and then a reflection comes back of say, how they struggled at one point or another at this time of their life.
Our attorneys from WASB would say that would not be an appropriate setting to put out there for the public to have access to,” said Bleck.
Err on the side of transparency
Board member Chris Martinson asked the board to consider what other districts and or municipalities do. He also said he prefers to err on the side of transparency and he wanted to ensure people who speak at the public forum are on the public record.
“Everyone that speaks to us in public form is noted and the general topic of their statement is documented and reported in the minutes,” Wagner explained.
“I get the sense that there is a concern we’re trying to hide something. We’re not,” added Wagner.
“We’re just trying to be sure that people who could be harmed by this aren’t put in a position where they are.”
Martinson asked. “Isn’t it the case that anybody can video this input? It’s a public meeting, we can’t prevent that correct?”
Wagner responded, “I would suggest to you that if somebody did come up and make a statement of personnel and you chose to record it and place it, you’ll be seeing someone in court.”
Martinson said he still would like to see the board change its policy on broadcasting the public forum.
Wagner again reiterated his opinion on the intended purpose of the public forum.
“I think there’s a difference between public forum which is intended to address the board of education and providing a platform for a voice of a citizen to a broader community,” said Wager.
If a citizen has an issue there’s nothing preventing them from taking it to other venues to put it out to the public, he said.
“We’re not required to provide them a platform of broadcast. A platform of broadcast quite honestly that we could be responsible for but have no control over,” Wagner added.
Martinson agreed that the board is not required to broadcast.
“But sometimes it’s a good idea to go the extra mile when it comes to transparency and openness that’s all,” said Martinson.
Protecting staff from public accusations
Wagner provided a hypothetical example in his argument.
“We should not provide somebody a forum to come up and say … ‘John Smith, the teacher in eighth grade is a terrible person you need to get rid of them.’ I have no control over that, neither do you or anybody on this board,” explained Wagner.
“You can rule it out of order,” said Martinson.
“Well by the time that’s done you might as well say, ‘Geez I didn’t mean to call fire in the building and have to start a stampede but I guess I did,’” countered Wagner.
Martinson suggested that if a comment made was too unfair, it could perhaps be edited out before it’s released.
“At that point you get to the line of, okay now you’re editing what we’re saying,” said Wagner.
“I have no problem taking it up in committee and seeing what we want it to be. I can tell you that Scott and I have spent quite a bit of time in exploring what other options are there and understanding if our policy is legal and if we are serving the needs of the public as well as making sure that we don’t create a scenario where we put somebody or some children or individuals in a bad light,” said Wagner.
He encouraged the board to pass along their thoughts to the policy committee for a future meeting.
“But understand that if we put it out there and we start broadcasting and something happens the minute we edit it, now suddenly, we’re saying you can speak in public but we take these things down,” explained Wagner.
“It’s not a very win-win situation when I look at it.”