The Central Okanagan Board of Education has taken a cautious step forward in providing access for the public to watch school board and committee meetings online.
At the board meeting on Wednesday (June 8), trustees adopted a resolution to webcast those meetings beginning this fall, pending a report from staff on how that policy can be implemented.
While there was a general consensus from the board on opening up meetings to the public, which was done via Zoom during the COVID pandemic public meeting restrictions, concerns were also expressed about limitations and personal abuse attacks that can be generated from online access.
Trustee Norah Bowman said she appreciates the ability online to follow Kelowna City Council meetings on her personal schedule, but said her experience with the school board Zoom meetings was not always pleasant.
Bowman said she was subjected to personal attacks about her appearance, was labelled ‘a Nazi,’ and had threats made against her and her family which RCMP was called in to respond to.
“You just need to be aware that when you open up access to meetings, this is some of what comes with it,” Bowman said about the personal online attacks she and other trustees have had to endure.
She added school board meetings are different from council meetings because of the involvement of parents and students, who may not want to be shown on video at meetings.
Trustee Chantelle Desrosiers said the accomplishments and input of students is an important aspect of board and committee meetings and the education decision-making process, and to restrict that as a result of streaming meetings live is not an equitable trade-off.
“I don’t want to see our students’ voices muted or lost at the table,” she said.
Kevin Kaardal, Central Okanagan Public Schools superintendent/CEO, noted when board meetings were on Zoom, staff had to discuss with parents and students about appearing on camera during the meeting, and not everyone was comfortable with that.
Desrosiers also raised issues about the cost, and the additional staff time if meetings were edited to delete identifying youth presentations before being posted.
Moyra Baxter, chair of the board of education, said to edit or delay the broadcast of meetings online will only raise doubts among some about the presentation of a public meeting that could be subject to manipulation.
Baxter questioned the participation impact of streaming board meetings, noting the Zoom experience did not draw big numbers beyond particular hot button issues surrounding the pandemic such as vaccine mandates.
“If we are going to do this, it should be streamed live because to wait for people to see it after the fact when decisions have already been made defeats the purpose,” she said.
She also cited that Central Okanagan Board of Education meetings are the most open of any school district in the province, where open debate on issues is encouraged.
“If you look around now, you see a lot of issues now being addressed in-camera where they did not use to be before,” she said.
Trustee Wayne Broughton, who introduced the resolution, argued opening up access to meetings for the public will be beneficial.
Beyond enhancing board of education public transparency, Broughton noted many parents can’t attend board meetings due to personal home commitments.
“It is just not always convenient for people in a school district this geographically spread out,” he said.
And it also offers an opportunity, he added, for the public to stay current or catch up on issues that otherwise might not be brought to light by many people.
Simon Adams, president of the Central Okanagan Parent Advisory Council, said his organization is supportive of the online access to meetings, saying it can help generate interest or awareness of parents and school issues, and hopefully lead to more parents opting to volunteer on PAC committees.
Adams said some schools are having issues recruiting PAC volunteers, which can mean the loss of gaming grant funding for school programs as PACs are the distribution arm for those grants.
“It is about transparency, convenience and the support of local democracy in our school system,” Adams said.
Baxter responded that parents getting involved on the ground level at schools their children attend is the best option for encouraging more parent participation in the school system.
Under the policy, while board meetings would be webcast, committee meeting streaming or delayed broadcast would be at the discretion of the committee chair.
School district staff will report on options for implementing the webcasting policy to the school board this fall.
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