In a day when any child with an inexpensive cellphone and an internet connection can make an entertaining video and post it on YouTube with the same effort his parents once needed to set the stations on the car radio, there’s no legitimate excuse for school districts or any government board not to record their meetings and make the videos available to the public.
In an article that appeared in last Sunday’s Gazette, reporter Zachary Matson surveyed about three dozen local districts and found that only eight recorded their meetings and made them readily available to the public, either on their websites or through local TV.
Cameras for making videos these days are relatively inexpensive. The picture they produce is sharp and the sound is clear, especially compared to the old videotape cameras popular just a few years ago. They’re easy to operate. They hold a ridiculous amount of data. And the videos can quickly be uploaded to a website, kept online for years, and can be easily accessed and viewed by anyone anywhere.
Any excuses offered by districts not to videotape and post their meetings are more than offset by the benefits.
First, the recordings help promote transparency by putting a board’s discussions on the record with far more accuracy, detail and permanence than any meeting minutes or media accounts of the meetings can.
If you want details about that building project or budget, and want to see for yourself what a particular board member said about it, a video will give that to you in unfiltered detail. If there’s ever a dispute over what someone said at a meeting — either a member of the board, an attorney, a presenter, or a member of the public — the answer is, as sportscaster Warner Wolf used to say, “Let’s go to the videotape!”
Did you miss something while you were at the meeting? You can go back and review it. Hear something interesting that the board quickly moved on from? You can go back and find out what it was.
In addition to their archival benefits, recording and posting meetings make a board’s activities more accessible to more constituents, some of whom might not be able to attend because of scheduling conflicts or transportation issues. Many people might be working during meeting times or have child care obligations. Some people just can’t or won’t stay up late for meetings, which can drag on late into the night. Some don’t like driving at night or in inclement weather. And others simply won’t make the effort to attend a meeting, but they will use their computer.
Being able to view a meeting in real time or to watch it at one’s convenience opens a board’s proceedings to a whole new audience.
More citizen engagement brings more citizen activism. It might bring more people out to meetings and public hearings. It might generate more ideas. Yes, it might generate more criticism of officials’ actions. But if you join a school board expecting not to be criticized, you’re in for an unpleasant surprise.
It might even get more people to the polls. If just 10 people watch a meeting online and one or two are compelled to vote because of what they witnessed, they can change the outcome of an election.
Information is power, and videotapes of meetings provide a lot of information.
But if board members don’t feel that being more accessible and transparent is a good enough reason to tape and post meetings, there are plenty of reasons why the recordings would be valuable — to past and present school board members, administrators, teachers and their unions, attorneys and anyone doing business with the district.
Tapes can clarify misunderstandings and can quickly quash false accusations and rumors.
We recently received a letter from someone who accused a public official of berating him at a public meeting. We looked at the tape of the meeting, which was available on the government board’s website, and found that the official in question was actually quite composed in the wake of the citizen’s barrage of accusations.
The accusation never made it into print.
A new superintendent or principal or union official who might want to become familiar with the district’s practices might want to review tapes of past board meetings to get information and perspective. A board member who either missed a meeting, went to the restroom or who didn’t quite hear or understand something that was said at a meeting could go through the tape and find the discussion they missed.
If there are so many benefits to recording and posting meetings, and if the technology is to the point where it’s affordable and easy to operate, the question is: Why aren’t more local districts doing it?
Some officials say they’re studying the issue. That’s an excuse for delay.
It’s certainly wise and fiscally prudent for stewards of the taxpayers’ money to investigate the costs and options for recording and posting meetings, including whether the district wants to purchase its own equipment or hire a company to do the work.
But districts don’t have to wait months until they come to a decision. Getting started could be as simple and basic as propping a cellphone on a meeting table.
The president of the board of the Canajoharie school district — a small, rural district that has been recording and posting its meetings on YouTube for the past five years — said recording the meetings involves placing a camera on a tripod, pointing it at the board, and turning the camera on and off.
It takes two clicks on the district’s website to get to the YouTube page where videos of regular meetings and public hearings from the past two years are posted in chronological order. If you click on any one of them, you can see and hear the discussions clearly.
Recording meetings needn’t be a Steven Spielberg production.
Some districts get fancier, with multiple cameras and angles, multiple microphones and post-meeting editing to cut out all the downtime.
But if a district wanted to get started right away, it wouldn’t take much more effort than it does to make a cat video.
The fear of what posting videos of meetings might reveal to the public, concerns about costs and manpower, or simply a lack of initiative should not be deterrents to school boards for recording and posting their meetings. The practice has been shown to offer significant benefits to taxpayers, parents, school board members, school officials and anyone else with a vested interest in local education.
If your local school district doesn’t record and air its meetings, contact the school board president and superintendent, and demand that they start.