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Ending LB School Board's "Mushroom Treatment": Show Us Your Meetings

(August 13, 2002) -- Mushrooms are grown in the dark and fed, er well, manure. This is fine for fungi but it's not good for democracy, accountable schools or LB children, parents and taxpayers.

It's overdue for LB's School Board to begin doing what other CA elected public bodies already do: televise their meetings. Their behavior on this to date is indefensible and embarrassing.

The 18th century French wit Voltaire wrote, "I have never made but one prayer to God, a very short one: 'O Lord, make my enemies ridiculous.' And he did."

We can likewise thank Providence for last month's explanations for not televising Board meetings offered by LB School Board member Ed Eveland and School Board President Bobbie Smith.

Eveland and Smith, who will face voters in 2004 if they choose to run (and if they're not recalled sooner) are not an enemy. However, the antiquated policy they defended is inimical to open government and school district accountability. It must go or Board members perpetuating it must go.

Board President Smith's remarks deserve a response. Board member Eveland's remarks do not. Our comments concerning his behavior are limited to explaining why we consider his conduct beneath the level acceptable for a LB elected official.

There are two types of argument: ad factum (on the facts, on the merits) and ad hominem (on the person, not the merits). Board President Smith gave an ad factum response. We consider it a poor response but at least it was a responsive answer. We'll deal with it below.

Board member Eveland made what we consider an ad hominem attack on the taxpayer, claiming televised LB City Council meetings "become nothing but zoos, with people like you that get up and are constantly negative, never have anything to say. In the years you've been coming, I've never heard one good thing from you about anything in this school district."

Attacking a speaker instead of attacking a speaker's points is one of the lowest forms of argument. It hurls mud to avoid discussing merits. We wouldn't let a schoolchild do this and shouldn't let an elected school Board member do so without expressing our strong displeasure.

That leaves us with Board President Smith's answer: "The Board has debated that issue and the Board has decided that it is too costly and we could use those funds to improve student achievement," she said.

Sorry, but we think this is in large part baloney. When we asked School Board President Smith when the Board had "decided" not to televise its meetings, she began backpedaling, saying the Board had discussed this in a Board "workshop" but hadn't taken a formal vote. We reported this...and decided to find out when that "workshop" took place.

Since no one at LBUSD could tell us, we had to resort to making the equivalent of a Freedom of Information Act request under CA's Public Records Act to find out what did and didn't happen. After initially ignoring our request, LBUSD belatedly coughed up an explanation.

LBUSD spokesman Richard Van Der Laan sent us a letter indicating the subject of televising Board meetings came up during an April 15, 2002 agendized closed session (i.e. it's legal) that dealt with then-Superintendent Dr. Carl Cohn's performance evaluation. Mr. Van Der Laan's letter said Dr. Cohn brought the Board a San Diego newspaper clipping and a San Diego City School District web page print out (discussed below) on the subject of televising its Board meetings.

"It was one of several performance items brought to the Board by the Superintendent about which he sought the Board's evaluation of his performance," Van Der Laan wrote, adding, "The article was for information purposes during the evaluation session, and so no action was taken by the Board on the item."

The San Diego newspaper clipping indicated it would cost San Diego City Schools $4,500 to televise each School Board meeting using a County Education Dept. crew and County cable channel. The print out from SD City Schools' web site listed more dreary costly options...but also noted that if SD had the video equipment in house (it doesn't now), the operating costs would only be about $500 per meeting or only about $10,000 per year.

Unlike SD, LBUSD does have video equipment. Unlike SD, LBUSD has television production and engineering staff at a facility near 8th and Locust. Unlike SD, LBUSD has its own cable TV channel. Taxpayers have paid, and continue to pay, for all this.

As reported last fall, LB's School Board voted in Sept. 2001 to use LBUSD's cable channel to cablecast high school football games and other sports. They even voted to spend several thousand dollars to pay announcers. And, we've learned, the shows also require LBUSD post production time and resources.

Pardon us, but if LBUSD can tape and replay football games from remote sites using paid announcers and requiring post production, it can tape and replay School Board meetings (which don't require announcers or post production) probably for less per meeting.

School Boardmembers make decisions affecting the future of our children. They decide how millions of public school dollars are spent. For the Board to black out actions affecting parents, children and taxpayers while televising touchdowns is outrageous.

And the notion that any LBUSD Boardmember would dare to assert frugality -- after voting some years ago to hand Cohn what we consider a profligate raise that will fatten his pension for years to come -- is beyond ludicrous.

This is a continuing embarrassment and the time for workshops has long passed. Here's how to get the job done.

LBUSD already routinely tapes its Board meetings on audio cassette. The tapes provide broadcast quality audio. The day after a Board meeting, take the tape to LBUSD's 8th and Locust TV facility, from where we believe it can be cablecast. (It may also be possible to cablecast it from the Charter Communications broadcast center just blocks from LBUSD).

Insert the audio cassette into an audio cassette playback machine. Push start. Voila, instant radio at no cost.

Run the audio tape during prime time, once the night after the Board meeting and one other time (in case it's missed). Run it while LBUSD's currently generated computer informational graphics roll across the screen (the Board agenda is part of the sequence).

This can be started in weeks. It should. There is no good reason not to.

Want video? Add that later because it's not that hard. LBUSD's existing video equipment, now relegated to recording football games, can just as easily record Board meetings for tape playback a day after. C-SPAN does this. The California Channel does this. The L.A. County Board of Supervisors does this. LB's School Board can do this...and start it quickly as a pilot project.

Video taping will require LBUSD TV personnel to bring cameras and the like (as they do for football games). Yes, you can neutralize or minimize cost with them. No, there doesn't have to be special lighting. No, you don't have do a major room overhaul. Yes, you can record Board meetings for video playback the same way City Hall records district Council meetings in the field for playback later. Yes, this will be a good pilot program without complexities and big costs. Yes, it's easier because there's already perfect audio from the Board room's own mixer. Yes, it's OK if it doesn't look like the Academy Awards. Yes, we suspect LBUSD TV has much of the equipment to record Board meetings already.

Live broadcasts are more complex so don't deal with this now. Start running the audio tapes of the Board meetings immediately. Direct LBUSD TV staff to report back in a few weeks with a no frills pilot plan to videotape record Board meetings and replay them later.

And stop stalling. Any school official who makes it harder than necessary for parents and taxpayers to learn what our School Board does in running our schools should not be running our schools.

Fortunately, Dr. Cohn is no longer using his six figure salary to clip dreary news stories about televising Board meetings. For the record however, we followed up on his April 15 handiwork:

On April 23, eight days after LB's School Board held its closed door "performance evaluation" of Cohn in which discussion of televising Board meetings was concealed from LB parents, the San Diego City Schools agendized the issue for public discussion. They received a written report from SD City School's Superintendent. It concluded SD city schools should buy the needed equipment and cablecast the meetings itself. SD's Superintendent said in pertinent part:

"Televising Board of Education meetings will offer parents, employees and community members an additional opportunity to observe and monitor the policy discussions and official business of the Board. Other districts that televise board meetings reported a significant increase in community interest and awareness in the proceedings of the Board."

The San Diego City School Board voted 4-0 to do so.

What a contrast with LBUSD's closed-door, closed-minded, Taliban-like fear of television.

LB School Board members who think they can maintain their contemptuous resistance to public sunshine are on the wrong side of history. No one can stop an idea whose time has come.

We encourage LB parents and taxpayers to email their friends and neighbors and tell them about this editorial. We think the Taliban feared computers, too.

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