Public Schools

Seattle School board’s virtual public meetings deserve a failing grade

Written by Mamie M. Arndt

The Seattle Public School board values community engagement. At least, that’s what board directors and board policies assert.

But those stated values are hard to square with the board’s virtual public meeting practices, which erect unnecessary and, frankly, irresponsible barriers to public participation. In fact, if a board wanted to alienate its constituents, it could take a page out of the SPS playbook: Hold interminably long meetings with minimal public notice. Take public testimony by audio conference call. Broadcast and archive only some, not all, public meetings online.

As remote public meetings have become routine, many public councils, boards and commissions have found conducting the people’s business with greater transparency and community feedback is actually easier. People who couldn’t hike down to stuffy meeting rooms can participate from anywhere. No bus schedules to consider; no babysitter required.

But at one recent Seattle school board meeting, people had such difficulty navigating the call-in line for public comment that school staff advised them to hang up and try calling back. On the broadcast, board members deliberated and voted behind inanimate still photos, their video turned off, denying the public the opportunity to watch its elected representatives work.

The district broadcasts regular school board meetings and work sessions on cable and YouTube. However, district officials shirk their responsibility by not doing the same for special meetings — such as the Jan. 21 meeting when board members voted to search for an interim superintendent.

A member of the public who wants to watch those must log on to Microsoft Teams in real time or file a public-records request. An SPS spokesman said that’s because board office staff lack the technical ability to upload the recordings. Instead, they forward requests to the public records department where someone — get this — copies them to a disc and pops it in the mail.

Yes, really.

This in a school district in its third semester of remote instruction in the heart of a famously engaged tech community, whose board members and administrators have voiced heartfelt commitment to inclusive and responsive community relationships. It is tough to understand.

Neither outgoing Superintendent Denise Juneau nor any school board member responded to a request for more information. Which brings to mind another troubling shortcoming: the board’s minimal public communication about pending business. Meeting notices and agendas are posted to the board’s website, but that’s where outreach seems to end. A search of the district’s social media channels found terse reminders of regular board meetings, posted the day before the meeting but after the registration window for public comment had closed. Neither they nor the lone calendar note in the district’s e-newsletter hinted at agenda items or possible board action. That is an opportunity missed — or perhaps deliberately avoided.

The district’s meager efforts seem to meet the minimum requirements of Washington’s open meetings law, but they utterly fail the law’s more generous spirit — to give public servants a chance to speak to and hear from the people whose lives will be affected by their decisions.

Board members could start by turning on the video to show their faces during public meetings and adopting better tools for public comment. They should insist that every public meeting be broadcast and posted to multiple platforms, and that meeting notices include previews and recaps of board action and why people should care.

Certainly, more robust and varied public engagement opportunities would be welcome. But this is low-hanging fruit — tailor-made for the pandemic and social distancing. The school board and district must shake off complacency and find creative ways to engage.

About the author

Mamie M. Arndt