The Tampa Bay Times on Monday morning asked Hillsborough County Schools Superintendent Jeff Eakins why the School Board’s Tuesday morning workshops are neither webcast, nor broadcast through the district’s cable television provider.
He responded with an explanation about the board’s decision this year to hold its workshops in a second floor conference room instead of the auditorium, which is set up with camera equipment.
When they met downstairs, he said, "it just wasn't a working session and I really feel that that's what the board wants it to be," he said. "More of a less formal way to get an outcome, so the staff has a direction moving forward. It's a board workshop, and ultimately we have to create the environment by which the board feels like they're getting that work done."
The Times asked several times why the district doesn’t find a way to telecast the meetings anyway, in the interest of transparency.
"That's not about not being transparent," Eakins said. "We've posted materials. People can come and they can visit that. They can attend. There's a lot of things we do to make sure everybody knows what we're going to be talking about."
There is a difference between board workshops and board meetings. At workshops, members cannot take a formal vote. But, as two or more members of the elected board are present, public meeting laws - which include advance notice - apply. The new format also moved the suspended agenda - in which the superintendent updates board members on key issues of the day - from the afternoon meetings to the morning workshop setting.
Because the district does not create a webcast, The Times has been live-streaming the Tuesday morning sessions on Facebook. The Times also live-streams audience comments during the afternoon meetings, which the district also chose to omit from the video programming. To make that possible, the district schedules audience comments at 3:30 p.m. The sunshine law still applies, as the whole board is present. But cameras are not turned on until the meeting continues (typically after a short recess) at 4 p.m.
Several times during their conversation with the Times, Eakins and spokeswoman Tanya Arja made the point that years ago, all workshops were held in a second floor conference room with no cameras. Arja said the workshops were held in the auditorium only when the district was expecting a large audience.
There were 14 televised workshops in 2018, according to the district’s website, which carries videos of all of them. There were 14 in 2017, one in 2016 and two in 2015.
The Times asked Eakins if there was any reason why he would be against turning cameras on during future workshops, regardless of where everybody sat.
“Logistically, I would have to figure out how that would work,” he said. “But it probably wouldn’t be problem. It just hasn’t been something that we really felt was necessary.”