Will enough people watch videos of East Penn School Board meetings to justify the expense of webcasting those meetings?
The school board is pondering that question as it debates initiating such recordings.
At Monday night’s board meeting, district superintendent Thomas Seidenberger presented three options for an “EPSD Board Room Video Capture Project” – with estimated costs of a “professional grade installation” ranging from $11,128 to $22,833.
The most expensive options would produce high definition videos, which several board members said are unnecessary.
The district would record board meetings, edit them and post them on East Penn’s website. The options do not include the cost of personnel to operate cameras as well as editing and producing videos.
Those costs have not yet been determined.
Costs also do not include equipment to store multiple copies of each meeting, which is estimated at an additional $5,000.
When presenting the options, Seidenberger said: “We’re here to work with the board no matter what your choice is.”
Several board members indicated they prefer less elaborate and less expensive options.
“I don’t have problems with webcasting, but I do have problems with the money going out,” said board member Rebecca Heid.
“Is there anything cheaper than what you are presenting us with?” asked board member Samuel Rhodes. “We could just set up a camera, record the meeting, put it on the Web site, burn it on DVDs and have those available.”
Board member Ken Bacher noted all the options involve purchasing two or three cameras. He also thought the district could get by with just one “set and forget” camera.
“I know you won’t get to see all our lovely faces in clear detail,” said Bacher. “But is there a reason why that option wasn’t considered?”
"My personal opinion is if we’re going to do something, we ought to do it well,” said Seidenberger after the meeting. “If the East Penn name is behind it, it should be well thought out and a product we’re not disappointed in. Let’s create a good product, something of East Penn quality.”
School board meetings, like most municipal meetings, are not well attended by the public except when people are concerned about a specific issue.
Putting the meetings on the Internet would allow more district residents to keep up with what’s going on from the comfort of their own homes. But some East Penn officials are skeptical many people will watch.
In early October, the school board voted 6-3 to direct the administration to prepare a report on what would be required to do webcasts of school board meetings.
“We need to move into the 21st Century and start webcasting like a lot of other government entities in the area are doing,” said board member Julian Stolz, who for several years has advocated that webcasts of board meetings be on the Internet.
Eighty-one percent of Pennsylvania’s 500 school boards do not broadcast their meetings to their communities, according to a 2012 survey done by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. Thirteen percent broadcast to local television stations and five percent do web broadcasts. (One percent listed “other.”)
At Heid’s request, East Penn’s superintendent promised to learn more about how a few other districts are doing it. Later he said Council Rock School District in lower Bucks County does a very good job.
Heid said Easton Area School District also is webcasting its board meetings. “Easton streams live and we’re not recommending that,” said Seidenberger.
East Penn officials want to edit the content of meetings before videos are posted, “to remove anything objectionable to the school board or its solicitor.”
"There are certain things that might not be permissible to be publicized,” said board president Charles Ballard, who voted against webcasting in October.
“What are the legal concerns?” asked Rhodes.
Seidenberger said permission forms would have to be signed before students could be recorded, such as when the board presents them with awards and when Student Government Association representatives speak at the beginning of board meetings.
Ballard said there also might be legal problems if East Penn disseminates a video that includes parents reading pornographic passages from books they are complaining about, as happened at a school board meeting last year.
Seidenberger said the district will look into the legal concerns with board solicitor Marc Fisher.
Video recording of East Penn board meetings already is done by John Donches, husband of board member Lynn Donches. They are posted on the website of East Penn Citizens for Accountability andTransparency: epcat.us.
Ballard questioned how many hits a video of an East Penn board meeting might get, saying: “We’ve had meetings recorded by another entity and put out there and the last time I checked there were like 258 hits in a year.”
Responding, Seidenberger said: “We were able to look at that information: Jan. 14, nine views; Nov. 12, eight views; Oct. 8, 13 views; Sept. 24, 29 views – that was in the book controversy time.
Same thing with Sept. 10, 103 views; Aug. 27, 26; Aug. 13, 17; July 9, 13; June 25, 11 and June 11, 23 – that was the budget. Those are numbers we were able to take off another entity’s website regarding potential use.”
But Lynn Donches said those numbers are only of people who watch the entire webcast of a meeting. She said people who watch only the portion of the meeting are not counted.
The administration wants at least one camera on the school board and another on anyone making presentations to the board. It also wants to focus in on power point presentations made to the board. And officials want a recording system that is tied into the board room’s audio system for clear sound.
But Stolz recommended using a standard video camera and making DVD copies rather than archiving recordings on a server as the administration suggested. “Archiving them on a DVD would cost you like two bucks.”
Stolz said his suggestion would be “adequate” and cost much less than the administration’s recommendations. “I thank the administration for putting them together. I’m just trying to find a lower cost way of doing this.”