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Pasco School Board to change public commenting as prelude to televising meetings

Discussion of items not appearing on the board’s action agenda will move to the end of the meetings.

Hoping to gain some added control over its biweekly meetings, the Pasco County School Board has decided to return to past practice of separating its public comment time into two sections.

Beginning with its next meeting, the board intends to allow people who want to speak on agenda items to comment at the beginning of the sessions. If those speakers do not use up the hour that district policy allows for commenting, those who intend to talk about other items would get the remaining time at the meeting’s end.

The board asked for the change as it edged closer to video recording and airing its meetings for the first time. Both board members and staff had concerns about inadvertently publicizing children’s private information on the internet.

The goal is to ensure the safety and privacy of students and families, said board member Megan Harding, who has pushed for broadcasting the meetings.

Such a move also comes as the board has struggled to manage large groups of speakers who want to talk about hot topics such as transgender student rights, which are not scheduled for any decision. Its change is similar to one recently taken by the Volusia County School Board, which also has grappled with public commenting.

Board member Cynthia Armstrong argued strongly for the shift. She suggested that, if the board is going to air its meetings, it should conduct itself in a professional manner.

“We are [going to be] broadcasting the business of the board,” Armstrong said. “They’re not talking about agenda items.”

She and others were ready to take that step of recording each meeting and making them available on YouTube shortly after adjournment. The comments about off-agenda items would not be part of the video.

Board members said they don’t want to spend too much on the system -- they agreed to purchasing an encoder for about $2,000, to use with existing camera and sound equipment.

But they liked the idea of getting more information to the general public, even though some said they had not received requests for videos of the meetings.

“The community would be very thankful they can see what’s happening and be involved,” Harding said, suggesting it would increase transparency.

Vice chairwoman Colleen Beaudoin bristled at the notion that the board had not been transparent, noting it advertises its meetings, posts backup materials online, operates in a public place and makes audio recordings of each meeting, which are available on request.

“This board is extremely transparent,” Beaudoin said, stressing that accessibility and transparency are not the same.

The board asked superintendent Kurt Browning to proceed with the broadcasting plans, including creating a new policy relating to video recording of meetings. It wanted to approve a plan and policy before starting the the process.

But the initial move to reformat public commenting will begin right away.

Harding said she was pleased with the direction the board is taking.

“I think we had a really good discussion,” Harding said. “I’m really thankful the board is willing to make it more accessible to our constituents. I think it’s very important.”