The Monroe City School Board began a disturbing practice Tuesday night when it conducted a regular school board meeting by teleconference, with only school board members present.
That’s disturbing because such meetings are only allowed if a majority of the board could not be present because of the COVID virus. None of the school board members have tested positive for COVID-19. The majority of the board chose to skip the meeting altogether. Then they made matters worse by choosing to use teleconferencing rather than video conferencing, which would have allowed the public to both see and hear the deliberations and most importantly, to give visible public input on each agenda item as the law allows.
Governor John Bell Edwards’ in Proclamation #30 allowed political subdivisions to conduct teleconference or videoconference meetings if it would otherwise be unable to have a quorum at its meetings. The Governor’s order provided that boards find ways to make sure the public can observe and participate in the decisions being made.
The idea was to help boards impacted by the COVID-19 self quarantines to meet quorum requirements by allowing those board members to be counted present if they participated in the meeting by teleconference.
However, that did not apply to public observation of the meeting or public participation.
The exact words of the governor’s proclamation: “All efforts shall be made to provide for observation and input by members of the public.”
The school board is different from all other public bodies in that the law requires the board to allow public comment on every item before action is taken. The governor’s proclamation did not suspend that portion of the law, but said all efforts “shall” be made to comply with open meeting requirements.
The Monroe City Schools has a highly advanced technology capability that can allow for virtual meetings in which the public can see, hear, and make comments on items without being physically present at the meeting.
Every teacher in the district knows how to access Zoom and other types of video meetings. In addition, the district has some of the best technology experts in the area on its payroll.
It obviously did not comply with the Governor’s order to pursue every possible effort to insure that the public could “observe” and comment.
The phone conference meeting was not well-publicized. It was posted on the door of the school board and advertised in the Newsstar. About 30 people totally logged on the teleconference. Those who logged in heard the conversation, but could not speak on each item. They could not observe the deliberations. They were required to email their comments which were then read by the board’s secretary.
That is a very disturbing process especially since, unlike other public bodies, five of the seven school board members chose not to come to the meeting. Even the president was at home.
They could not look at each other, and the public could not observe them.
Contrast that to meetings of other public bodies in the context of the COVID proclamation and the problem is clear. The Police Jury hosted a virtual video meeting, but all of the Police Jurors were present, spread out appropriately. Members of the public heard them and were given the opportunity to speak on the record.
Other public bodies followed a similar pattern, but elected officials showed up. Five of the seven school board members hid behind the COVID safe distancing claim.
Hopefully, there will never be another teleconference school board meeting. While there may be a member who is under quarantine that cannot attend, hopefully there will never be another official meeting with only two board members present.
Even in the atmosphere of social distancing, the school board’s Tuesday meeting by phone was really disturbing and should never happen again.