Transparency Time

Posted on 12 February 2014

While it has been a concept bantered about since last year’s school board election season kicked off, the idea of the Sag Harbor School District joining the ranks of East Hampton and Southampton and offering recordings of its public meetings has formally been before the school board for six months now.

Merely creating recordings of public board of education meetings would be a small token to a community that in the last year has called for more transparency and openness from this board. That a debate is still ongoing, including outstanding legal questions, is inexcusable given the amount of time that has passed since this issue was first raised.

The time for action is now. The public is not asking for access to student records or personnel files—it is simply asking for access to public meetings covering the business of a publicly-funded school district for those who are unable to pay a babysitter, part with their children after work, or are simply too busy to make a Monday night meeting.

Frankly, it is not a lot to ask for. And it is certainly not unchartered waters. Both East Hampton and Southampton towns provide video recordings of their meetings to the public, via their own websites and through public access television. School board meetings are available through public access in both East Hampton and Southampton. While the Village of Sag Harbor does not provide video broadcasts of its numerous public meetings, it does have audio recordings, which are—of course—available to any resident willing to fill out a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

Assuming it agreed to videotape its meetings, the school district would need to provide access to its video library in some fashion, whether through a public access channel like LTV (which also has video on demand services so residents can access any programming, at any time), SEA-TV or on their own website. But providing video access would eliminate the need for 99 percent of all FOIA requests and would also ensure an educated school community when it comes to board of education issues.

There is no need to “train” board members for their on-camera appearances, as was discussed at Monday’s meeting. In fact, there is no need to change anything about the board’s meetings. They are public now—and under state law, meetings should include discussions about almost everything revolving around the business of running the school district.

We have said it before, we will say it again—there is little that can or should be discussed behind closed doors. That videotaping opens up an opportunity for more members of the public to engage with the school district is only a positive.

It is more than a worthy investment. The board is currently discussing a budget for the 2014-2015 school year. It hosted a work session looking at technology in the school district on Monday before its regular session. That budget conversation should have included this initiative.

The tentative budget currently includes $15,500 in funding for “public information,” largely to pay for the district’s consultant agreement with Syntax Communications, a public relations firm in Bohemia the school began contracting with last year as it prepared for its $8.9 million bond referendum. With no bond referendum on the table, it begs the question of whether  some of that money might be better spent on other public information initiatives outside of public relations. Perhaps, for example, giving all district residents access to the most basic information concerning our school district: what is discussed at our school board meetings.


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