No money for live streaming, but school board is considering transparency options

June 23 – After turning down funding that would have allowed the Frederick County Board of Education to broadcast its committee meetings live, board members asked school district staff to explore other options to make their processes more transparent.

The twice-monthly evening meetings of the full committee are broadcast live on the Frederick County Public Schools website and on television. A recording will be available online later.

But most meetings of the board’s 11 committees – whose work influences decisions on everything from the curriculum to the start date of the school year – are not streamed or recorded. While committee meetings are open to the public, they often take place on weekday mornings, making them difficult for working parents to attend.

Minutes and committee agendas are uploaded to BoardDocs, the Board’s website for sharing documents with the public. But Chief Executive Brad Young acknowledged that these are often “bare bones”.

In recent months, community members have been urging the board to livestream all committee meetings. But it’s an expensive, complicated task, FCPS public affairs officials said. According to a recent employee estimate, two more employees would need to be hired, which would cost $141,184.

As the board worked last month to cut about $8 million from its proposed budget, it debated adding those funds. However, after much discussion, the board members voted against the motion. Some said they didn’t feel comfortable diverting money from a tight budget to a service that doesn’t directly affect students.

When the board approved its final budget Wednesday night, it didn’t include $141,000 for public affairs staff. Still, board members said they directed FCPS to explore lower-cost options.

“It is critical that the public have as much access to the work of school board committees as possible,” said board member Sue Johnson, who supported budgeting for the $141,000 at the May 18 board meeting.

She said she’s keen to find a more affordable way to make it happen.

“I’m not giving up on the subject,” Johnson said.

Plenary sessions can last up to seven or eight hours. Two FCPS public affairs officers must closely monitor the broadcast at all times.

The public affairs “control room” is right next to the board meeting room and is full of screens and flashing lights. A loud fan hums around the room, working to cool the fiber optic encoder that sends the video feed to Comcast for broadcast.

Jeremy Eccard and Amelia Ross, video production specialists for FCPS, sat together during Wednesday’s board meeting, adjusting audio levels, changing camera angles to focus on the speaker and adding name tags so viewers could identify each officer.

Behind the slim, flat screens that Eccard and Ross use are bulkier, boxy screens, a relic from 2010 when the building was built. The age of the building and its technology would complicate any effort to connect new streaming systems, FCPS spokesman Eric Louérs-Phillips said.

Members of the Louérs-Phillips team start preparing for each session broadcast more than a week in advance, he said, uploading presentations and creating graphics to accompany each scheduled speaker.

“There’s more to it than just pressing a button,” says Louérs-Phillips.

Johnson claimed that District Stream Committee meetings are taking place with the current staffing — even if the broadcasts are less technically advanced. Ideally, she said, they would be streamed live, but even a graphic-free, static recording that the public could watch later is better than nothing, she said.

Johnson coaches youth baseball and said she recently bought a $25 wire clip to hold her iPhone during games. She plugs it in, sets the record and the players’ family members can watch from states far away, she said.

“If we can do this for youth baseball or youth sports, we should be able to do this for businesses that will potentially affect 45,000 students,” she said.

Even a simple recording would require the work of public affairs staff, Louérs-Phillips said, to process and upload the footage.

If committees met virtually, it would be easy to record and upload videos, Louérs-Phillips said. That’s what the board did in the middle of the pandemic.

But now that virus restrictions have been lifted, Young said it wasn’t an ideal solution.

“I just think a lot is lost if you’re not there in person,” he said.

Calls for committee meetings to be broadcast live were intensified in April when a meeting of the Family Life Advisory Committee to discuss possible changes to the district’s health curriculum erupted in shouts.

Parents who objected to the content of the curriculum also criticized the committee’s procedures, arguing that the information was not readily available in advance and officials did not allow sufficient time for public input.

“We’re here because we’ve been accused of not being transparent about our committees and the work they’ve been doing recently,” board member Jay Mason, who did not support the allocation of the $141,000, said at the board meeting on April 10 May 18th. “We’ve had some controversial issues and community members weren’t happy with us, so now all of a sudden we’re not transparent and we need to do a complete transition to accommodate that.”

Follow Jillian Atelsek on Twitter: @jillian_atelsek

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