The board that oversees Western North Carolina’s largest school system is about to make its public meetings more public.
After months of studying and debating the matter, the Buncombe County Board of Education voted Aug. 8 to pay for video coverage of its regular meetings, both online and on television.
At present, the board archives audio recordings of its meetings on its website, but in an unwieldy format. The official recording of one recent meeting, for example, was sliced into 17 different digital files, making listening to a full session something of a chore.
Soon, full videos of the meetings will be broadcast and archived online and appear on Charter Cable Channel 16, a TV channel reserved for educational programming that’s also used by Asheville City Schools, Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College and UNC Asheville.
Under a plan prepared by Jan Blunt, director of communications for Buncombe County Schools, the school system will hire an outside contractor to produce the broadcasts, which could start as soon the board’s next meeting, on Sept. 5.
The arrangement is likely to be temporary, however. The board plans to have Buncombe Schools staffers take over the broadcasting sometime next year, when the board begins meeting in a multimedia-equipped auditorium in the county’s new STEM high school, which is slated to open in August 2014.
Debate over costs vs. public access
The board had last addressed the broadcasting proposal at its June 6 meeting, where board members extensively debated whether the cost of the endeavor would be justified.
At that meeting, Blunt reported price quotes from several production companies and suggested that Tim Amos, a retired Asheville City Schools administrator who has long helped with broadcasts of Asheville City Board of Education meetings, might be the person best suited for the job of turning the board meetings into widely available videos.
Amos, she said, could produce the broadcasts at a base rate of $1,000 per meeting, while charging an additional $250 per hour for meetings that go beyond three hours. The board holds its regular meetings once a month.
Board member Amy Churchill, a proponent of the plan, said that “the public should not have to rely on one individual’s blog for information; they should be able to get the information firsthand, and that would include video and audio, and be able to get it when they want the information.”
“I also see this as an opportunity to showcase the good things that are going on with Buncombe County schools,” she said, adding that the school system’s students and staffers “should also have the opportunity to see what we’re doing.”
Board member Pat Bryant countered that the new expense of broadcasting would come at a bad time. “I can’t in good conscience support this now,” he said, given budget shortfalls for such key resources as teachers’ assistants.
“This doesn’t, in my opinion … directly impact the students in our classrooms,” Bryant said of the broadcasting proposal. “So I won’t be supporting this. Not because I’m against us being on television: If we can come up with a plan for us, or somebody who was willing to do this, for free, I’d be all for it.”
Only six of the seven board members were present at the June 6 meeting, and the proposal was stymied by a split 3-3 vote. But the board then agreed to revisit the issue at a later meeting when all members were present.
That happened Aug. 8, when the previously absent member, Chip Craig, was present and broke the tie, leading to a 4-3 vote in favor of broadcasting.
“To me, it’s a trade-off between the costs — given the budget cuts that we’re having — versus the benefit to the public,” Craig said before the vote. “So that’s been my struggle.”
Ultimately, he said, the number of teachers who told him they listen to the online audio of the meetings persuaded him to vote in support of funding video broadcasts.
Activist pledges to continue independent coverage
For most of the past year, Davyne Dial, an independent media activist, has been shooting and streaming videos of the board’s meetings of her own volition. (See her videos on her YouTube channel.)
After the Aug. 8 vote, Dial praised the board for backing the broadcasting plan.
“I think it’s great that they’re going to do it; I can’t wait to see them do it,” she told Carolina Public Press. “But it’s not going to stop me from doing it, because we need different ways to present the [board's] conflicts to the people of Buncombe.”