It appears that six months of debate, not to mention eight public hearings since the summer, have not been enough to answer a fairly basic question: Should Sag Harbor Board of Education meetings be broadcast online?
During the most recent board meeting, held on February 10, a parent stepped up and went so far as to offer to foot the bill for the necessary equipment—estimated to cost a few thousand dollars.
But the potential cost of such an initiative seems to be a secondary concern among board members.
After initially expressing support for the program, one that has been instituted by local towns, villages and even other school districts, Sag Harbor Board of Education members say they are still concerned about potential privacy issues that could arise from recording a public meeting, and fear that others may edit the videos and take their statements out of context.
Despite those potential drawbacks, all seemed to cautiously agree that such issues could be addressed and, ultimately, a pilot program should be put in place to get the meetings up and running online.
But, as Interim Superintendent Dr. Carl Bonuso said Tuesday, previously undiscussed gray areas also need to be explored before the board feels legally and ethically comfortable with the practice—and the discussion was tabled for another day.
“First and foremost, I have no idea how the community feels about the taping,” Dr. Bonuso said. “And it is more than just the price of the equipment. There are legal issues.”
Dr. Bonuso went on to say that while dozens of schools have explored the option in Suffolk County, only two have actually implemented the practice, including East Hampton, which broadcasts meetings on the public LTV channel.
Because of this, he said, the drawbacks most stressed by those school districts have to be explored. In addition, Dr. Bonuso expressed a desire to boost the current sparse attendance at board meetings, something a broadcast could hinder if done too well.
“We need to think through how to accomplish better attendance, as opposed to giving up and letting people just watch the tape,” he said. “There is so much more we can all get out of it if people attend and engage in a conversation.”
Dr. Bonuso added that board members hope to have answers for their questions “over the next few weeks, after we have an opportunity to get a very solid, rounded view of many different lenses.”
Some answers to the board’s questions, however, are readily available.
According to the Department of State Committee on Open Government website, public boards are allowed by law to make their own decisions about taping and broadcasting public meetings.
In a legal opinion posted on the site, Bob Freeman, the executive director of the State Committee On Open Government, states: “From my perspective, the decisions consistently apply certain principles. One is that a public body has the ability to adopt reasonable rules concerning its proceedings. The other involves whether the use of the equipment would be disruptive.”
He continues by saying that boards of education should not be concerned about privacy issues, stressing that the meetings are public forums. Mr. Freeman also said that boards have the right to edit the footage, if a privacy issue is raised—such as when a minor addresses the board—but are not obligated to do so.
Additionally, Mr. Freeman noted that any member of the public can legally videotape board of education meetings and subsequently post them online.
Last week’s meeting also featured a spirited discussion about whether the 7:25 a.m. start time for first period at Pierson Middle/High School is too early.
Arguing that students of that age were naturally wired to sleep more and hit the sack later than adults, parents asked the board to consider a time more in line with the elementary school start time of 8:35 a.m.
While saying the board was open to further discussion and study, Dr. Bonuso said that such a switch does not appear to be feasible, largely because of the impact on after-school athletics.
On Tuesday, Dr. Bonuso said that all the points made about the impact on athletic schedules were valid, and he also offered a litany of unknowns that such a decision could influence.
“As much as people are concerned with academics, and should be, no one can deny that the athletic program is a very important adjunct to schooling,” he said. “Because we’re on the East End, [a change would be] significant, because many of the schools in our conference are much further away and would be getting out of school earlier.”
Dr. Bonuso also repeated what Athletic Director Todd Gulluscio said at last week’s meeting, that the average travel time for an away game is about 50 minutes for Pierson teams. “It would exacerbate what is already an issue for us,” the interim superintendent said.