SPJ Reading Room
It’s time for school boards to televise their meetings — and skip the lame excuses
By David Chartrand
There are three surefire ways to make a good idea look bad. I call them the Three Smokescreens:
1. Money (“It sounds expensive.”)
2. Information (“Needs more study.”)
3. Liability (“We could get sued.”)
I don’t recommend using these at home. God knows I’ve tried.
HER: Could you please turn off the basketball game and help with the dishes?
ME: I need to think about it, honey. At halftime, I’ll check with our attorney.
HER: We don’t have an attorney. But I know a bloodthirsty divorce lawyer.
The Three Smokescreens, however, are used routinely by public officials groping for reasons to avoid public scrutiny. It depends on the issue. When issuing humongo tax breaks to a new Home Depot or promoting a $200 million school bond issue, officials in my hometown never run short of money, information or lawyers. But when it comes to televising the meetings of our local school boards, the discussion is quickly shrouded in smoke.
Many city councils and state legislatures have long televised their meetings, most local school boards remain off the airwaves. School boards and school superintendents, however, prefer communicating with taxpayers the old-fashioned way — at late-night meetings that no one attends. My hometown school board doesn’t even offer free coffee at its meetings, which, if you ask me, constitutes a conscious disregard of the First Amendment.
The excuses offered for not televising school board meetings are — surprise, surprise — money information, and liability. We’ll take each one at a time, then have a good laugh and call it a day.
The annual cost of televising a school board meeting is only slightly greater than the carryout deli food that school districts purchase, usually from gourmet bakeries, for faculty and staff meetings. Airing a meeting on cable TV requires little more than a video camera and tripod. The only “expensive” part — the airtime — is free.
Nearly all local cable television franchises offer free “educational access” and “government access” channels to schools and local government agencies. You’ve probably got one in your town. It’s the channel that features those enterprising “feature news” reports about what a great job the school board is doing, plus late-breaking announcements about changes in tomorrow’s 8th grade lunch menu (Beanie Weenies instead of Fried Twinkies.) Watch these channels all day you’ll go stark raving loony, but you’ll never see the monthly school board meeting.
As for information, there are many complex public issues that require extensive, endless study (i.e., whether to remodel the library or add more parking on Main Street). Televising a school board meeting is not one of them. There’s nothing to study.
The Federal Communications Commission and the cable television industry give communities wide berth to use local “access” channels for any and all educational and informational programming. I have conducted dozens of interviews with FCC and cable industry officials on this issue and the answers are always the same.
ME: “What concerns does the government or the cable industry have about school boards televising their meetings?”
THEM: None. Unless the meeting involves lap dancing or excerpts from a Chris Rock HBO concert, we couldn’t care less.
ME: Is lap dancing common at school board meetings?
THEM: We don’t have that information. It would require more study.
No one keeps track nationally of how many school boards televise their meetings, not that it matters. So I did my own random and verifiably non-scientific sample of school and cable TV officials around the country. No one had data but several were willing to non-scientific estimates about how many Boards of Education televise their meetings.
“Not very many,” said a spokesman for the Kansas Association of School boards. He was quick to add, however, that, “I’m sure school boards would do so if patrons asked for it.”
“Patrons don’t ask for a lot of things,” I said. “Like property tax increases and car-allowances for the school superintendent. But it happens anyway. What’s to stop the school board from just doing it? After all, it would make it easier for parents to observe their elected officials inaction — I mean, in action.”
Eliminate two of the Three Smokescreens (money and information) and all that’s left is the “liability” defense. I saved this for last because readers enjoy a column that closes with a good joke. I heard this from the school superintendent of a suburban midwestern school district.
He explained that school board meetings, like most government meetings, have “open forum” sessions during which citizens may step to the microphone and air their concerns.
“There could be liability issues,” he said. “The FCC has rules, as you know, about the broadcasting of profanity and obscene language.”
It was funnier when he told it. I said, “You mean, you’re afraid some angry mom or dad is going to stand up at a school meeting and call somebody an asshole? Has that ever happened?”
He didn’t laugh. “We have the utmost respect for our patrons. But when you broadcast live comments over the airwaves, anything could happen.”
“Everyone speaks ‘live’ during a public meeting,” I said. “That’s why it’s a public meeting. Are you saying it’s OK for a school board member to say something offensive over the air but it’s not OK for a taxpayer?”
“Our school board members and our parents do not behave like that.”
“Good. So what is the liability concern? Has any school board ever been sued successfully for something said during a public meeting — solely because it was televised?”
“The staff would have to study that.”
I knew he’d say that.
“Look,” I said. “Can we cut through the smokescreens here? This isn’t about money or something that needs studying, is it? It’s not about legal liability. Isn’t it about public officials who are afraid to give a forum to their critics?”
“I have never suggested that. And I resent you making vague and offensive generalizations.”
“I apologize,” I said. “But what good is being a newspaper columnist if you can’t make vague and offensive generalizations?”
I did not make up that dialogue. It really happened — more than once. The same lame excuses — money, information, liability, lack of public interest — are offered by school boards and staff all across the country when asked why their meetings are not televised. Assuming someone asks, that is. Which is the part that bothers me most of all.
It’s easy to understand why paranoid public officials don’t want their deliberations observed under the bright lights of TV cameras. It’s harder to understand why the local news media in many communities has taken a pass on the question. Curiously, many editors and reporters tell me they do not consider it an “open meetings” issue or “First Amendment” issue.
“The meeting is, technically, open to the public,” one metro editor told me. “Anyone can attend. Our reporters attend. Readers can get the news from us.”
I could have swallowed that explanation 30 years ago. But Americans today don’t get all their information from the conventional news media. They use television, blogs, podcasts and the Internet. They want more information than the scraps of facts that a beat reporter manages to cram into a 700-word story the morning after the school board meeting.
Open Records statutes and the First Amendment aren’t just for the convenience of journalists. They benefit everyone. When governments invent lame excuses to make it more difficult for citizens to monitor their government, everyone suffers. A reporter is paid to sit on a vinyl chair for four hours during an all-night school board meeting; for the average citizen, attending government meetings in person is an unnecessary hassle. What a reporter chooses to include in his day-after coverage is a decision made by him and his editors, with no input from readers.
A few years ago, one of our local school boards finally agreed to start televising its meetings — on an edited, tape-delayed basis. I now watch the meetings at home while I’m on the treadmill or thinking up excuses for not helping with the dishes. The next day I compare the meeting I saw on television to the print version in the local daily.
Often, the most interesting part of the meeting doesn’t make it to the print version. Maybe the school reporter was in the bathroom during that agenda item. Or maybe she was out searching for free coffee.
David Chartrand, a member of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee, is a syndicated columnist and author based in Olathe, Kan.