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Pinellas school board to resume livestream of public comment at meetings

The action reverses a decision made at the height of the pandemic, when some speakers were voicing incorrect or private information.
A view of the Pinellas County school district headquarters last year in Largo. The school board plans to resume livestreaming of public comment on nonagenda items at its regular meetings, a longtime practice that was stopped at the height of the pandemic.
A view of the Pinellas County school district headquarters last year in Largo. The school board plans to resume livestreaming of public comment on nonagenda items at its regular meetings, a longtime practice that was stopped at the height of the pandemic. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Jan. 17|Updated Jan. 17

LARGO — Pinellas County residents who want to know what their neighbors are telling the school board no longer will have to attend meetings to find out.

School board members on Tuesday agreed to resume livestreaming public comment on nonagenda items, a practice the district halted in fall 2021 at the height of heavy criticism over the use of masks during the pandemic. The decision comes weeks after the board began posting audio recordings of its workshops on its website, rather than requiring people to request a copy of the recording.

At the request of newly-elected board member Stephanie Meyer, the board in December discussed livestreaming public comment but delayed action so it could review what other governmental agencies do.

Related: After criticism, Pinellas School Board may rethink public comment rule

Board member Laura Hine called for the change on Tuesday. She acknowledged some of the concerns that prompted the end of livestreaming, and suggested they still matter.

Some speakers present “gross misinformation” that cannot be immediately rebutted, Hine said, while others air private matters in public.

But the board “changed a 25-year public information policy at the height of discord,” and that felt like censorship to many, she said. The decision, she added, also fostered a feeling of distrust that needs to be repaired.

Hine proposed an immediate return to livestreaming, effective with the board’s Jan. 24 meeting.

Related: Pinellas School Board considers more limits on comments at public meetings

Other board members quickly signaled their support at Tuesday’s workshop. At the same time, they said, the board can do more to protect speakers from airing their children’s private information, and the public from receiving misinformation.

“All of those pieces are important,” said board member Caprice Edmond, who along with Hine opposed stopping the livestream two years ago.

Edmond also reminded the board that it can keep decorum at meetings through the chairperson.

The plan, suggested by chairperson Lisa Cane, includes putting a notification on the speaker sign-up cards and other prominent locations in the meeting room that what is said will be publicly aired. Cane also recommended the video of the meeting include a statement that public comments may or may not be true.

Cane said she fully supports unlimited public comment and the protection of students’ safety.

“I think we can do both,” she said.

Board member Carol Cook expressed continuing reservations about switching back. She gave an example of a parent who came in and named a school, saying its students are out in the dark waiting for buses daily.

She raised concerns that such information could jeopardize children’s safety. Lacking a good solution, she said, she did not support livestreaming, though she added she would abide by the will of the majority.

Board member Eileen Long suggested the board might also want to require speakers to sign up by a certain time at each meeting. She said some speakers might have their questions answered if they hear the board meeting.

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“If they really are that concerned, they should be there for the meeting anyway,” Long added.

Others did not support that idea, at least for now.

School board attorney David Koperski said he had begun working on wording for the disclaimers and the meeting procedures. He said they would be ready for the next board meeting.

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