The San Antonio Independent School District is the largest inner city public school system with nearly 54, 000 students attending classes at 90 different campuses, yet the twice-monthly board of trustees meetings attract little attention or media coverage. Trustees often meet without any mainstream media in attendance. Few citizens or parents of students attend. Usually, administrative staff outnumber everyone else.
During the school year, the 5: 30 p.m. meetings are held in the former David G. Burnet Elementary School at 406 Barrera St., home to some of the administrative offices scattered throughout the district. During the summer, the board meets at 141 Lavaca Street, an equally unfamiliar venue to most in the district. Neither meeting room has WiFi for media or attendees, and typically, trustees and presenters work off documents and reports not available to media or audience members who are left to grasp the issues at play solely from the conversation.
It’s hard to imagine a parent, in a district where more than 90% of all families are economically challenged, attending the meetings with the intention of engaging in in district-level issues.
The district’s uninviting meeting culture might be on the cusp of change. Monday evening’s board meeting featured an “SAISD Guest” WiFi signal. I checked emails, briefed myself on other meetings and events we will cover, updated my calendar, and downloaded the meeting’s agenda all while waiting for “my” agenda item to come up. Other meeting attendees were doing the same while listening to the meeting. Social media sites, including Facebook and Twitter, are blocked on this network.
This free and (relatively open) Internet access is Objective #5 of the accessibility and transparency changes proposed at Monday’s meeting by Trustee Steve Lecholop (D1) (see objectives below). It’s a straightforward plan that will require all parties involved to accept changes to the status quo, never an easy proposition. Lecholop and other trustees who support his initiative are proposing greater transparency in conducting district business. They also hope a more open and inviting meeting environment will lead to greater community engagement.
While generally supported by the seven-member board and Superintendent Pedro Martinez, some trustees expressed concern that new operational standards will be a burden to staff and cost money. District attorneys and staff will put some numbers to Lecholop’s proposal and report back to the board for an Oct. 12 vote. Given that the proposal miros standard operating procedures at City Council and other public meetings, it seems unlikely that the new procedures would represent significant cost or staff time.
HB 283, passed by the Texas legislature earlier this year, calls for greater transparency and information access at meetings of public school boards and other governmental bodies. These requirements go into effect on Jan. 1, 2016. Click here to view the bill. Lecholop’s proposal, here, holds the district to even stricter standards and deadlines.
“In collaboration with our mission statement, that is to create a national model of an urban school district, we don’t want to settle for the bare minimum,” Lecholop said. “We want to take steps that ensure that SAISD board meeting transparency is as accessible and transparent as possible so that all of our community can access and gather information related to what we do as the leaders of the school district.”
SAISD Board and Superintendent Services Director Tiffany Grant relayed questions and concerns raised by the board’s Governance Committee chaired by Trustee James Howard (D2). Chief among Howard and Trustee Olga Hernandez‘s (D6) concerns expressed on Monday was the cost of the logistics of live streaming and the cameras/equipment that goes with it – at two different meeting locations – as well as the strain on staff resources.
“I have no problem with transparency at all,” Howard said. “But it’s going to be very difficult and time consuming for the staff. … I want to see the budget effects it would have.”
The state is imposing similar rules soon anyway, Lecholop said in response, “we’re going to have to do it eventually” and a work load balance is achievable by using new technology and existing digital and staff resources wisely.
Objective #1: To provide the public an audible video recording of board meetings.
The state’s new rules calls for audible/video recordings be made available on an existing or new website within seven days of a meeting. Lecholop’s proposal puts this deadline at noon the following day. These videos would be archived and made available for at least two years after the meeting takes place, much as City Council A and B sessions are made available online within the same week if not the same day.
Objective #2: To provide virtual access to all board meetings.
“Parents, students, taxpayers, and every member of the community at large should really have access in real time – or as soon as reasonably possible thereafter – to see what the board is doing on a week by week basis,” Lecholop said. Not everyone can show up to a meeting at 5:30 p.m., but maybe they can live-stream the meeting from their computer at home or mobile device. Such access is standard fare at other tax-supported public bodies in the city and county.
A concern of the Governance Committee, Grant said, centers on the legalities of having children appear on video – if that conflicts with Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) that protects the privacy of student education records. Students are often invited to board meetings to receive awards and recognitions before the board takes up its regular agenda.
“We want to make sure that people know what we’re about, this is a great way to do it,” Hernandez said. “As far as doing what the (state) law requires, we don’t have any choice. … I guess they’re giving us seven days because of those things required of FERPA. We need to really make sure we’re following those (rules).”
Lecholop, an attorney, said there shouldn’t be a conflict as long as the meetings don’t reveal specific student outcomes.
Objective #3: To create a detailed and comprehensive historical record of all school board meetings.
Here’s the challenge for SAISD staff members. Summary meeting minutes are required to be taken during every meeting to record trustee debate and decisions and public comment.of what gets decided by the board and what citizens that sign up to speak to the board have to say.
“Our written minutes need to reflect at least the flow of conversation as the trustees express their opinion or ask questions. …. In some places this happens, not in every place,” Lecholop said.
Grant said she transcribes citizen comments and trustee discussions, as well as motions made, seconded and the vote outcomes.
“My concern in paraphrasing what you say, is will I capture the true essence of what you say? I’d like to air on the side of caution which would be basically transcribing the entire conversation.”
That kind of detail is time consuming and results in 12-page long minute documentation, she said.
Minutes from one meeting are approved at the subsequent meeting anyway after trustees are offered the opportunity to suggest amendments or clarifications.In essence, the video and written minutes would complement each other in Lecholop’s plan, “I don’t believe that the (minutes) need to be a transcription.”
Click here to view the paraphrased minutes from a recent City Council meeting.
Objective #4: To provide greater access to school board agenda materials and documentation at Board meetings.
This requires staff to upload meeting materials – memoranda, background reports on agenda items, and presentations (especially financial spreadsheets) to the district’s website or other file organizing site.
“We should be able to easily meet that request,” Grant said.
Trustee Debra Guerrero (D3), concerned about the waste of paper, said the district staff shouldn’t print materials out unless requested by a community member.
Objective #5: To provide wireless Internet access to board meeting attendees.
Staff tested the wireless network system during Monday’s meeting. So far, so good.
The board will vote on the proposal at its Oct. 12 meeting at the David G. Burnet Center. All board meetings are open to the public. If approved, Lecholop said the changes should be implemented by Dec. 1, giving the district staff time to debug the new procedures before the state’s Jan. 1 deadline.
Top image: SAISD Board and Superintendent Services Director Tiffany Grant presents the SAISD board trustees with questions and concerns from the Governance Committee. Photo by Iris Dimmick.