East Penn School Board has taken one step in the direction of posting its public meetings on the Internet, but it's still a long way from a done deal.
At Monday night's meeting, the board voted 6-3 to direct the administration to prepare a report on what would be required to do webcasts of school board meetings.
Passage of that motion was a rare victory for board member Julian Stolz, who unsuccessfully has been advocating for several years that board meetings be put on the Internet.
“You could knock me over with a feather,” said Stolz after Monday’s vote.
But before the vote, he said: "This is not a vote for or against webcasting. This is just to find out what it would take."
However, Stolz also told his fellow board members: "The majority of you, at least in the campaign last year and the one before, expressed support for webcasting meetings. So I'll ask you to hold your promise to the public.”
Stolz noted Lehigh County commissioners and Emmaus borough council do webcasts of their public meetings, which gives people who can’t attend meetings an opportunity to observe what happened.
Board president Charles Ballard said the district looked into the issue about four years ago. Superintendent Thomas Seidenberger said the administration is willing to prepare a new report for the board by updating that previous report.
With the superintendent willing to do that, Ballard questioned whether any formal action was necessary. Stolz wanted the approval of the board.
Those voting with Stolz were Ken Bacher, Lynn Donches, Rebecca Heid, Michael Policano and Samuel Rhodes.
Those opposed to having the administration do such a report were Ballard, Alan Earnshaw and Francee Fuller.
Before that vote, Earnshaw made a motion to table Stolz’s motion. That failed by 7-2, with only Earnshaw and Fuller supporting it.
After the meeting, Earnshaw and Ballard said the last time the district looked into webcasting, the cost was estimated at $5,000.
Ballard maintained East Penn webcasting its school board meetings “is not a good use of taxpayers’ money at this particular time in our budget.”
Earnshaw said his decision will be based on whatever cost figures the administration comes up with, but he would rather see the money spent on textbooks or other educational materials for students.
Video recording of board meetings already is done by members of East Penn Citizens for Accountability and Transparency. After the meeting, Ballard said his personal observation is less than 10 people a week view those recordings via EPCAT’s Web site. “They are not getting a tremendous amount of hits.”
During the meeting, Stolz noted one camera is used to create those webcasts: “If a member of the public can do it for what I assume is virtually no cost, I would think the school district can as well.”
After the meeting, Earnshaw indicated creating good quality video and audio will require more than just one camera. For example, he said cameras should show faces of those who address the board, not the backs of their heads; audio recordings should be tied directly into the board’s microphone system, and video recordings should directly capture Power Point presentations. He also said getting Webcasts onto the Internet will entail labor costs.
Seidenberger told the board its meeting room is not the easiest setting for webcasting. Earnshaw noted that administration will have to consider that some board meetings are held in the high school cafeteria when large crowds are anticipated. He said a contingency plan will be needed “for handling a move to another venue” if webcasting is done on a regular basis.
Ballard wants the administration’s report to include a legal opinion from board solicitor Marc Fisher about possible liability to the district if webcasting is approved.
Stolz got into an angry exchange with the board president when Ballard blocked his attempt to introduce the same motion at the end of the Sept. 24 meeting.
Ballard said the motion had to be put on the agenda for the next meeting.
Stolz wanted to inform the public about his motion, but Ballard said the public would see it when the agenda was published.
Stolz told Ballard: "There really is no end to the lengths you will go to try to prevent the public from knowing what's going on at these meetings."
Said Ballard: "Mr. Stolz, you are casting aspersions on members of the board..."
Stolz interrupted, saying: "Oh you cast aspersions on me all the time, Mr. Ballard."
Said Ballard: "Mr. Stolz, you will please refrain. If you want to make a motion, go ahead. I will declare it improper because the public hasn't had a chance to review it.
And then it will be on the agenda."
Stolz made the motion and Ballard ruled it was improper, but added it would be on the agenda for the Oct. 8 meeting under unfinished business.
At that Sept. 24 meeting, Ballard said "contrary to some allegations" about "a mythical lack of transparency" East Penn is as transparent as it can be and far more transparent than most school boards. "We try to handle all our stuff in public and we go to great lengths to insist that certain things occur in public," said the board president.