In February 2009, Anne Arundel County Public Schools (AACPS) began broadcasting select Board of Education (BOE) meetings covered under the Maryland Open Meetings Act (notably excluded were BOE public work sessions and the meetings of other AACPS public bodies regulated under the Open Meetings Act). This week AACPS announced it would make videos of recent BOE meetings available online.
Better Late Than Never
This is a welcome if belated development. For more than a decade I campaigned for AACPS to broadcast and archive online its BOE meetings. It was a subject on which I had considerable expertise.
In the early 1990s, I wrote an award-winning master’s thesis on televising local public meetings, including for K12 education. In 2003, the National Civic Review published my article, “Should the Public Meeting Enter the Information Age?,” which mentioned AACPS’s failure in this regard. Many school districts began video recording their board of education meetings in the early 1990s, and video archiving online became popular in the early 2000s.
In the early 2000s, I wrote a Capital op-ed and series of letters-to-the-editor on related matters, and when newly arrived Superintendent Eric Smith visited my house to chat about AACPS policies that would be parent friendly, this is one of the items I featured. Later, when I chaired the Countywide Citizen Advisory Committee, which was supposed to represent parents, I made this a top priority. Most working parents cannot take time off from work to attend midday public meetings when the BOE presents plans for their particular schools. More recently, I wrote a related policy paper, Making Public Community Media Accessible, for the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution.
Unfortunately, AACPS leaders strongly opposed easy video access to its public proceedings. Publicly, they argued it was too expensive. But the real reason was that it was viewed as politically dangerous. Small communities such as Winooski, Vermont (pop: 7, 267) or Takoma Park, Maryland (pop: 16,715) find it affordable to provide state-of-the-art video access to their public meetings. But the political logic is very different for a giant, wealthy school district such as AACPS, where politicians and superintendents obsess over their public images and want as much control as possible over their public records.
So how has AACPS done? The production values of its public meeting TV broadcasts have been excellent. Given its $750,000 investment in TV studio equipment plus three TV producers per broadcast, this is perhaps not surprising. And now, according to its press release, it’s making available on its website videos of its “recent” meetings, with agendas conveniently placed adjacent to the video links.
Still, given the year 2012 and the huge amount of money AACPS has spent on video facilities and ongoing PR expenses, it’s not impressive compared to what communities with budgets a tenth or even a hundredth the size of ACCPS have been doing for many years, even before the YouTube.com age arrived.
At a minimum, archives of meetings should be maintained online for at least ten years (storage costs for ten years of video now costs less than $100), and the video should be tightly integrated with the agendas, so linking on the agenda will go to the relevant section of the video. Moreover, integration is not enough. The combination of video, agendas, and meeting documents should be machine-searchable, unlike now where they must usually be manually searched one document at a time. All this is still primitive compared to the state-of-the-art, but such changes would nevertheless be a significant improvement.
The Public, Educational, and Governmental (PEG) budgeting process, which funds public meeting TV facilities, also needs to be made transparent. PEG funds come out of the 98 cents/month all TV subscribers in Anne Arundel County pay to the County. These funds, which amount to more than a million dollars per year, have for too long been treated as an invisible IT and PR slush fund.
Typical of the County's PEG mindset, I was recently billed the 98 cents/month three times in one month in violation of the County's PEG ordinance and regulations, due to what Comcast claimed was a programming glitch. The problem derived from several changes of service I made, with each change of service automatically triggering a new one-time monthly PEG fee. It took me several hours of calls to the County and Comcast to get the $1.96 extra fee reversed.
Despite imperfections, I believe the new accessibility of BOE meetings is a boon for AACPS parents.