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Atlanta School Board Streams Public Comments at Meetings

For many years, the Atlanta school board’s meetings have only been accessible to people willing to attend in person, but officials are now starting to stream the entirety of the meetings online.

by Vanessa McCray, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution / January 6, 2020
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(TNS) — For years, the only way to hear what parents and residents say at Atlanta school board meetings has been to show up in person.

But starting Monday, the online video stream that shows the Atlanta Board of Education as they debate and vote on important issues also will capture and record public comment.

It’s a significant change, and one that advocates who regularly attend school board meetings have long pushed for.

“I think things have slowly changed and progressed to where there’s more desire and a demand for transparency and good governance, and showing public comment is part of that,” said school board Chairman Jason Esteves.

The public comment period at the board’s monthly meetings can last up to an hour. Each speaker who signs up to talk gets a couple of minutes to address the board, and their concerns are wide-ranging.

They come to talk about taxesstudent dress codes, the availability of diaper changing tables in restrooms, how principals are hired, and banning beef from lunch menus. Parents bring specific concerns to the board about how their child’s school is performing or come to criticize or praise decisions.

In the past, if you weren’t sitting in the room, you wouldn’t hear any of it.

Cita Cook has made it a mission to attend and take copious notes at nearly all of the school board meetings since the fall of 2011, after she retired from teaching at high school, community college and university levels. During that time she’s heard — and made — plenty of public comment.

Cook said listening to parents and residents speak has given her insight into the district, and she believes that recording and giving voice to their comments is a key way to show their input is valued.

“The board’s refusal to videotape statements by community members can easily be interpreted as a message that they/we are being tolerated rather than respected as true partners. And that their/our comments are not worth thinking about or sharing with others, including those who cannot make it to meetings and must watch it on tape later,” Cook wrote in an email.

On a couple of occasions, people have used “inflammatory or offensive language,” and concerns about amplifying their message has been one reason some had hesitated to tape public comments, said board member Cynthia Briscoe Brown, who heads the policy committee, which recently discussed the issue.

“I think the feeling has been that live-streaming public comment both could provoke clearly offensive or abusive behavior and also broadcast it,” she said.

But she said there’s a desire to boost transparency and community engagement. That, combined with technological advances, makes this the right time to start showing public comment.

She and Esteves said the board has taken other steps in recent years, such as streaming and recording committee meetings.

The Cobb, DeKalb and Clayton school boards show their entire meeting, including public comment. The Fulton school board streams its meetings but not public comment. The Gwinnett school board does not broadcast their meetings at all.

An APS attorney advised the board to handle the livestream, which appears online almost in real time, differently from the recorded version that the district archives. The livestream will go out as it happens in the board meeting room. The version of public comment that’s recorded and posted online by APS for viewers to watch later will be subject to editing. The attorney advised the board that archived recordings should be edited to remove comments that could violate student privacy law or release other confidential information.

Esteves said no board members or administrators will be involved in editing decisions, only attorneys. He said the archived recording will include a notation if a part of the public comment has been redacted. The videos will be posted online at livestream.com/k12aps.

“Our goal is not to censor anyone’s legitimately held opinion, but we have to be careful that doesn’t cross the legal boundaries,” said Briscoe Brown.

©2020 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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