A school district that spent
$1 million on a stadium scoreboard can afford a little overtime for a videographer.
That would seem to be a logical response to a Killeen Independent School District spokesman’s explanation about why the district doesn’t televise school board workshop sessions — as it does regular board meetings.
Certainly, a little overtime shouldn’t be a deterrent to improving transparency.
First of all, the board’s workshop meetings only take place once a month — unlike twice-monthly workshops for Killeen’s city council.
Even if a board workshop lasts three or four hours, that’s not much overtime per month. Post-production and editing would add further expense, but the added cost should be insignificant to a district with a $378 million annual budget.
Second, unlike Killeen’s workshop sessions — held in the Utilities Collections Building, which is not equipped for televising meetings — the Killeen school board’s workshops take place in the same room as the regular meetings, which is already set up for broadcasts.
And while the school district is not under any obligation to televise its workshops, it would be in the public’s best interest to do so.
The bulk of discussion on most agenda items takes place during workshops. When an item is brought to a vote at a regular board meeting, there is often no discussion, and items are frequently grouped on the consent agenda for a single up-or-down vote. District residents showing up for the regular meeting, or tuning in, without knowledge of the prior workshop discussion would be hard pressed to understand what’s going on.
Killeen ISD started broadcasting its board meetings in March 2015, after the board authorized spending up to $65,000 for equipment for the broadcasts.
When it was inaugurated, the four-camera setup in the district’s boardroom had the potential to usher in greater transparency while providing district viewers the opportunity to tune in to the presentations and discussions that shape Killeen ISD purchases, programs and policies.
Unfortunately, as long as nothing is done to provide recorded documentation of workshops as well, the district’s broadcast initiative is only a half-measure.
Board members are elected to act on behalf of those who put them in office, and that includes the responsible stewardship of taxpayers’ money. If the district’s taxpayers are expected to evaluate the board’s workshop discussions and actions based solely on cursory board minutes on the district’s website, that doesn’t leave them much to go on.
This is especially problematic when the board is discussing something as important as the proposed $426 million bond election that may go before district voters in May. While the district has done a credible job explaining the process as it progressed, televised workshops would have made the process much more transparent and accessible.
The city of Killeen has taken some action in this area, providing audio recordings of the city council’s workshop sessions, though it’s not always possible to determine who is talking at any point in the recording. Ultimately, City Manager Ron Olson hopes to reconfigure the council chambers to make it a better fit for workshops — which then could be televised and recorded.
That would be a welcome development.
While providing a recorded account of meetings is an important factor in improving transparency and accountability, it is not the only area where the school district — and other local governmental bodies — fall short.
Scheduling important items for discussion at the tail end of meetings — also known as backloading an agenda — also hurts transparency, even when meetings are televised.
Backloading the agenda of a night meeting curbs public input by discouraging residents from sticking around until the item comes up for discussion late in the evening.
For those watching a televised session, such scheduling could preclude watching the entire meeting live.
This practice also hinders media access, as a discussion item that is taken up late in the evening can conflict with a reporter’s efforts to file a meeting story by deadline. If board or council action is taken after the reporter’s deadline — as with last week’s KISD board decision to split the proposed bond issue into two segments — the development might not be reported until the following day.
Finally, governmental bodies limit public access and input when they schedule meetings when a significant portion of residents are unable to attend.
While KISD scores high in this area, with both workshops and regular meetings at 6 p.m., other entities do not.
Harker Heights City Council holds its twice-monthly workshops at 3 p.m. Tuesdays, the Copperas Cove ISD board holds its workshops at noon on Mondays, and the Bell County Commissioners Court has its weekly meetings at 9 a.m. on Mondays.
The timing of these public meetings puts them off-limits for most residents with traditional daytime jobs or child care issues.
More importantly, governmental bodies that consistently hold daytime meetings discourage a large segment of the population from seeking office with those bodies, because of schedule conflicts.
Consequently, these legislative bodies are typically composed of retirees, people who are self-employed or those whose jobs afford them significant flexibility.
That’s not a true cross-section of our community’s population.
In the end, it’s all about access — whether it’s access to public input, access to documented accounts or access to timely information.
Without this access, transparency and accountability are bound to come up short.
And that’s something that can’t be justified.