Board Meeting Broadcasts Boost Transparency

Susan Hardy Brooks
Susan Hardy Brooks, APR

When it comes to transparency, few things leave a school district more exposed than televised board meetings. Having your governing body’s decision-making process visible to the entire community has both advantages and disadvantages.

For Amber Graham Fitzgerald, director of community relations at Enid (Okla.) Public Schools, a commitment to transparency means a total commitment. “We believe it is our responsibility to televise our school board meetings,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense to be open about some things the public has a right to know, and not others. Televising our board meetings has been a positive decision for our community, our students, and our staff.”

If your school board meetings are already being televised, try to keep them on the air unless the cost becomes prohibitive in these lean economic times. Anything that reduces communication with parents and stakeholders could be a big mistake because it runs counter to the openness people have come to expect from any public entity.

On the other hand, if you’re just beginning to consider the idea of televising your school board meetings, the experiences and opinions of one communication professional who has “been there, done that” and another who is contemplating it, should prove helpful.

Susan Brott, APR, chief marketing and communications officer at Independent School District 197 in Mendota Heights (Minn.), moved from a district that televised school board meetings to one that did not. In her case, transitioning from audio to video recording involved moving the physical location of school board meetings to accommodate the equipment needed.

“We are fortunate to partner with one of our city halls to use their council chambers for our meetings, which in turn allows us to contract with our local cable commission to record the meetings and broadcast them on the local access education channel,” Brott explained. “The public appreciates partnering and the wise use of taxpayer dollars.” Brott’s district also posts videos of board meetings on its web site.

In the Lewisville Independent School District in Flower Mound, TX, administrators and board members are currently researching the topic of televising board meetings, following an NSPRA Communication Audit, according to Karen Permetti, director of public information.

Advantages

Because her district covers 127 square miles, Permetti believes that distance is a factor that prohibits constituents from attending meetings. She also believes that broadcasting and/or streaming board meetings online will showcase the board in action. “Some community members feel our board ‘rubber stamps’ items, but if they actually saw the board members discuss things, it would help eliminate this perception.”

Brott identified several reasons to broadcast school board meetings, including transparency and accountability. She noted that board meetings should be televised because they are public meetings, and the public has a right to view them. “Televising meetings lets the public follow the work of their elected school board and hold the district and the board accountable for actions taken.” She also noted that local media are able to cover the meetings even when they cannot attend.

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The broadcasts provide a more in-depth record than traditional minutes, including discussions, board actions, and presentations. If meetings are rebroadcast on a local cable network or online, it allows people who were unable to attend due to scheduling conflicts to view the meeting at their convenience, according to Brott. Her district also considers broadcasting the meetings to be a good public relations and marketing tool because they showcase the positive work of the students and schools. “When the board has recognitions of students, the parents love having an electronic copy they can send to extended family elsewhere.”        

Brott and Permetti both agree that making a decision to broadcast board meetings, even if there are advantages, involves weighing all sides of the issue, including community expectations, technology capabilities, facilities, costs, and consideration of what might go wrong.

Disadvantages

When it comes to identifying the disadvantages of broadcasting school board meetings, Brott said the only real problem she sees is “the few rogue individuals who will try to use the televised meetings to their advantage.” Examples might include a patron who tries to ”highjack” a meeting during the public comments portion of the agenda. If good guidelines for the public comment time on the agenda are in place however, that risk is reduced.

Another risk is having someone make a public comment that is simply untrue. “If there is no response to such a comment by board members or district officials, you now have a bigger PR problem,” Brott explained.

“Similar grandstanding can sometimes be done by a board member,” said Brott. “If you have someone who has a specific angle or likes to hear him or herself talk, having cameras there can exasperate such a trait. To avoid this, you must have good governance policies and procedures in place, and you need a strong board chair who can control the meeting.”

In the Lewisville ISD, Permetti said some agenda items don’t really require much discussion, and that could create some misunderstanding or confusion from viewers. She noted that some stakeholders believe decisions are made prior to the meetings, which feeds into the “rubber stamp” idea. As a school communication professional, you may want to suggest that board meeting action items include the “why” behind decisions and the committee work, research, etc., that occurred prior to the meeting vote.

Permetti said that since her district’s board meetings aren’t presentation-heavy, they might need to incorporate more presentations. Some boards alternate between working meetings and action meetings, and NSPRA suggests that boards host “listening sessions” to give the community more opportunities for dialogue with the board.

Another potential disadvantage for televising meetings, according to Permetti, is the risk that some board members might use the broadcast as an opportunity “to placate their constituents versus making a decision that is best for all students.”

Do Your Homework  

What advice would Brott and Permetti have for a school district that is considering televising board meetings? Do your homework …

  • Research community expectations.
  • Discuss the pros and cons of broadcasting meetings.
  • Determine your budget.
  • Evaluate the suitability of your current board meeting location.         
  • Seek partnerships with other public agencies, such as local cable television, city/county and municipal government.
  • Strengthen board policies and procedures regarding board meeting protocols.
  • Identify how meeting broadcasts will be archived and stored.
  • Decide if meetings will be rebroadcast on cable television or on the web.
  • Determine when and if any circumstances would warrant editing of a broadcast.
  • Provide training and orientation for board and staff members.


New Challenges

There are several new challenges for a school communication professional to consider when school board meetings are televised. Although Brott believes the pros outweigh the cons, she said the possibility does exist that someone could pull meeting video out of context, distribute it online and have it “go viral” on the Internet. A communications office would need to be prepared to handle that scenario.

She said you also have to be prepared to reach a wider audience than before, because people actually do watch the broadcasts. Brott makes sure additional information is available online or prepared in advance for people who want to know more about topics discussed during the meeting broadcasts.

Permetti suggested that embracing new technology and determining who will manage the broadcasting role will present additional challenges for the school communication person. She anticipates that televised meetings will involve prepping key messages for administrators, providing training for board members and staff, and an increase in the public relations counseling role. “We all know PR counseling takes a long time and a lot of hand-holding.”

Even though transparency and accountability are essential for school boards and school districts today, the decision to broadcast or not broadcast meetings merits study, planning, and a long, hard look at your community’s needs and expectations.


Susan Hardy Brooks, APR
HardyBrooks PR
susan.hardybrooks@gmail.com