Parent-Activists Celebrate Decision to Livestream RCSD School Board Meetings as Win for Transparency
by DARIEN LAMEN
(WXIR-Rochester) The Rochester City School Board voted unanimously Tuesday to begin livestreaming all of its meetings.
And for a handful of parent-activists, it was a small but hard-earned victory for transparency.
"I definitely tout this as a citizen victory," says Suzie Syta Gutierrez.
She's one of several RCSD parents who started taking shifts livestreaming School Board Meetings back in December when proposed staff cuts moved them to get more involved.
For the last several months, they've been using the public comment period at the start of Board meetings to urge commissioners to livestream all public meetings.
The parent-activists were surprised to find that only the twice-monthly Business Meetings were being livestreamed and archived on the Board’s YouTube channel, even though the Board was meeting at least once a week.
Major, controversial proposals were first being presented and discussed in those Tuesday “special sessions,” as the District calls them.
Detailed presentations on both the Superintendent’s proposal for midyear cuts, and his more recent proposal to close down two schools and replace them with PreK Centers first went before the Board in those Tuesday sessions.
"It felt like an important piece of activism to let the board members know that the public does want to know what's happening in real time," Syta Gutierrez says.
Syta Gutierrez says it’s important to know more than just what the Board decided. It’s also important to know how they deliberated, for how long, and how each board member justified their position.
Currently, the only easily accessible public record of those Tuesday "special sessions" are the written minutes. But you might have to wait a pretty long time to see those posted. As of this broadcast, the most recent minutes from a Tuesday meeting that have been posted online are from October.
According to the Board’s new clerk Marisol Lopez, Tuesday Board meetings have traditionally been run and recorded differently because they were not subject to state open meeting laws.
Lopez says that changed in August, when the Board’s committees began meeting with all Board members present in response to the Distinguished Educator’s report.
"The committee meetings were with 3 members, and open meetings constitute 4 or more. And now that you are in a committee-of-the-whole setting since last August, it changes the regulation for how the meetings are run," Lopez says.
It’s still unclear when the RCSD will begin livestreaming Tuesday Board meetings.
Given the District's funding crisis, Commissioners have said they're committed to doing so in a way that is "cost-neutral."
Marisol Lopez says that will probably look like a single, stationary webcam at the front of the conference room, rather than the more elaborate multi-camera HD set-up used for business meetings.
But if that means slides and presentations are not also recorded, "cost-neutral" could come at a cost to meaningful transparency.
Still, Syta Gutierrez and her fellow citizen-livestreamers say it’s progress.
And the decision comes just in time, as the District announced Thursday that Board meetings would be closed to public attendance until further notice in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19.
For a board that has struggled with difficult and contentious decisions for the last several months, the fact that this one was so uncontroversial kind of makes you wonder why it didn’t happen sooner.
DARIEN LAMEN is news producer/director for WXIR Community Radio. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org