Joni Trobich, president of the Mecklenburg PTA Council, recently sent the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board a plea to televise or otherwise record upcoming budget sessions. Not only are tens of millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs in the balance, but Trobich says the stakes are even higher: "We risk civic unrest, and deep racial and economic division in our community over decisions that are not understood by the public."
Many of the board's budget talks will take place during regular meetings, which are televised and videostreamed on the CMS Web site. The next one, on Dec. 14, falls into that category.
But the board has also scheduled four special work sessions in 2011, which will not be available unless CMS finds about $10,000 or comes up with another plan for taping, airing and streaming. Board member Tim Morgan has suggested pulling from board members' travel allowances, but several of his colleagues balked at spending any public money to televise budget-cutting sessions.
Trobich has some ideas (read the full note below). I'm intrigued by some blog comments suggesting CMS use students. I'm sure that's not as easy as it sounds, and I suspect it can't be done for free. But it seems like the right combination of motivated students, tech-savvy faculty and business partners could do the work while giving students some marketable skills.
Here's what Trobich has to say:
To our School Board Members;
Today I write not as president of the PTA Council, but as a citizen very interested in education policy. It is critical to the well-being of our city to make all "open" school board meetings available to the public. To continue the policy of only televising "regular" board meetings is actually endangering the peace and civic engagement of our community.
I know of your efforts to engage the public in the comprehensive review; I know that significant efforts were made in the summer, and our community did not respond adequately. We are somewhat spoiled here in Charlotte; we take our "world class" schools for granted, and many of us do not take the trouble to get involved until something happens that affects our school or our household.
In the past, when school cuts were announced and the public was caught unaware, we could go back and see the proceedings of meetings, and we could watch the replay of the meetings (including the budget work sessions where all the important factors in the decisions were discussed) on channel 3. This fall, when school closings were announced, parents, staff, and community leaders felt blindsided, and had no way of going back to the discussions to find the reasoning behind the decisions. Without this background, even those trying to understand were not able to understand why these ideas made sense.
Please do something to keep the public informed as to these decisions; I have been in attendance at many of the budget work sessions, but there are huge numbers of citizens that cannot attend due to work obligations, and still want to understand the process. I recorded and transcribed one of the budget work session meetings and sent it out to our PTAs; it took days (and nights) to accomplish this, and I cannot do that on a regular basis.
Please consider the following possibilities:
- Provide a digital audio recording of the proceedings of every open meeting that is not televised. A member of the public who is interested in what happened at the meeting could view the powerpoint presentation, provided on the board website, and listen to the digital recording and understand the reasoning behind the proposals. It should be posted immediately after the meeting is concluded. The advantage here is that it is very cheap and does not require special expertise - a digital recorder with USB connection can be purchased for less than 50 dollars which will create a very good quality recording that can be posted as a file on the website.
- Provide a video recording (as we did before) available on the board website and run it on Channel 3. The obligation to inform the public is certainly worth the tiny amount of funds that is required.
- Provide a software transcription of the audio recording of the meeting immediately on the website afterward, with the disclaimer that the method used may produce less than perfect quality, and is provided to allow immediate review of the meetings proceedings by members of the public who could not attend.
- Use a "Flip" camera to provide a video of the meeting. Although it would not be the quality we are used to, we are in a different budget climate than ever before, and the public will understand that. It would be far more informative than the naked power point presentations that we have now, and better than an audio recording alone. Again, this is a very cheap option. A Flip camera which will produce a video tape instantly for Youtube costs less than 130 dollars, and is available at dozens of stores in Charlotte immediately.
Thank you for your service to our community. Although I have disagreed with many school board decisions over the years, I have never felt that decisions were made based on "back room" agreements, or were being made arbitrarily without insightful discussion.
All of our citizens should be assured that these wrenching decisions are based on reasonable discussions of costs and benefits to the community, and that they are invited to participate.
Mecklenburg PTA Council