The USD 329 Board of Education has decided to no longer stream its meetings. This cut in accessibility and transparency will hurt the community and students.
The board began streaming meetings while meeting virtually at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. We commended the district for continuing to stream meetings in an editorial last semester, but the board announced a decision to end the process beginning at next week’s meeting.
Wabaunsee superintendent Troy Pitsch explained the decision. “I think we’ve become kind of passive consumers of things that are going on instead of showing up and advocating.”
“I think if people are genuinely interested and really want to be an active participant in school district affairs, they would probably show up in person,” Pitsch said.
“The board isn’t saying we don’t want people to come, what they’re saying is that we prefer you come in person.”— superintendent Troy Pitsch
Every month, anywhere between 100-250 people watch the meeting. Fitting that many people into the board room would be uncomfortable, if not impossible.
For many people, making the trip to attend a monthly meeting simply isn’t doable. Some people can’t attend board meetings because they have children, siblings or even parents at home they have to care for. Activities, jobs and a thousand other events can get in the way, but that doesn’t mean people should be shut out of access to the school board. Giving people the option to watch from home is more than just a matter of convenience.
“The board isn’t saying we don’t want people to come, what they’re saying is that we prefer you come in person,” Pitsch said. While bringing patrons to the meeting is a good intention, it isn’t worth excluding people who can’t attend in-person.
Pitsch said that the Kansas Association of School Boards (KASB) is recommending schools to move back to in-person board meetings.
“The board is considering and deciding that we probably should go with what the KASB is recommending we do,” Pitsch said.
But when we asked the KASB, that was not the explanation provided.
Kristin Magette, Assistant Executive Director of Communications and Community Engagement with KASB, said that decisions such as to stop live-streaming board meetings are made by local leaders.
Magette said that local leaders may decide to do this because “Live streaming a meeting requires additional technology support from staff. Schools may need those staff to spend their time on other tasks or avoid overtime expenses.”
Wabaunsee technology director Josh Nisly said that isn’t an issue. “I don’t think it’s a problem. I usually try to attend every meeting and so every meeting I’m at I am able to take care of it,” Nisly said.
We have the equipment and capability to continue streaming, and we know it improves community engagement, so why not continue?
The Charger works to cover every board meeting, and many students on staff are unable to attend in-person due to practice, activities and jobs. This means that students who may live more than 20 miles away have to travel for an hour-long meeting that they could have watched from home or at school the next day.
District Clerk Michelle Gehrt noted that minutes from meetings are published online and posted in the Signal-Enterprise, but as we noted in an editorial last year, the notes tend to be pretty vague. It’s a good way to find the decisions the board has made, but the discussion and context is often lost. No other local media regularly covers our district, and the Charger often coordinates its coverage with the Signal-Enterprise. Having a recording of the meeting also helps us avoid misquoting board members, as we can easily verify quotes.
The decision doesn’t violate the community’s access to public meetings, but we think it’s a bad public relations move by the district. At a time when the board is asking the taxpayers to invest in a bond issue, it doesn’t seem like a good idea to be more inaccessible.
If this decision affects you, please let the board know. Their email addresses are all published at usd329.com.
When we asked board members for comment, area 4 representative Jerome Hess said “The great thing about having a high school newspaper is you can attend all the meetings you wish to, and report on them for those who haven’t.”
We certainly intend to. We just wish the board would make it a little easier.
The editorial is the opinion of the Charger staff. Students discuss editorial topics as a group and write an opinion that represents a majority of the staff.
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