Before the pandemic banished them from meeting in person, hundreds of people had packed Scranton’s school board meetings. The Pennsylvania community’s distrust of the board had been mounting ever since the state auditor discovered years of neglect and fiscal mismanagement, landing the district in more than $200 million of debt.
So when the Scranton board moved its meeting online March 6 to discuss how to close its deficit, more than 350 people logged on, overloading the YouTube video conference tool it was using. It forced the district halfway through the seven-hour meeting to split guests among Zoom, YouTube, and Facebook.
“We’ve been dealing with a lot of hot-button issues,” said Katie Gilmartin, the president of Scranton’s school board, referencing potential layoffs, asbestos and lead poisoning in some school buildings, and next year’s budget. “Every meeting, a new challenge emerges, but we’re working through them.”
Scranton is one of thousands of school boards struggling to govern districts in a virtual environment just as the timing for their most consequential decisions has arrived: budget season. Board members must figure out how to distribute hundreds of millions of dollars while maintaining social distance and community trust. Getting meaningful public input and maintaining transparency—as required by law—is especially challenging.
School board meetings have been hacked, journalists have been virtually bumped out of meeting rooms, and public-comment sessions have been cut short.
Governors and state attorneys general have loosened the traditionally stringent rules that govern how school board meetings should be conducted and how budgets are approved.
School board associations, district lawyers, and community advocates have rushed to help set new virtual norms, a clumsy and frustrating process for everyone involved.
“The whole point of public school boards is that they answer to the public,” said Francisco Negrón, the chief legal officer for the National School Boards Association. “Gathering public input now can be quite cumbersome.”
Blunders and Do Overs
Indianapolis’ school board had to repeat an entire meeting after it banned people from attending for health and safety reasons, but where members were making fiscal decisions.
Philadelphia’s school board last month voted to hand over sweeping powers to the superintendent to make purchasing and hiring decisions in response to the coronavirus outbreak.
That move angered some community advocates.
School board members say they have struggled to access and comb through hundreds of purchasing requests, traditionally provided to them in a board packet weeks before a meeting but now provided electronically, if at all.
Other major challenges: making live meetings publicly accessible to residents with and without social networks or internet service and providing a public-comment period for constituents while also maintaining social order.
“Financial decisionmaking always breeds mistrust among the public,” said Daniel Bevarly, the executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, who has fielded dozens of complaints from community advocates in recent weeks regarding the accessibility of school board meetings. “There’s already enough friction as it stands now. We need more information from these public institutions, not less.”
After the coronavirus outbreak, Indiana’s governor last month allowed boards to meet virtually as long as the chairman of the board was in the same room as the superintendent.
In Lafayette, Ind., several hourly employees gathered six feet apart in the board room with board Chairman Robert Stwalley and Superintendent Les Huddle as other board members, via conference call, voted on whether to continue to pay the hourly workers through the pandemic. The board agreed to continue their pay.
“They were so darned happy with the outcome of the meeting, they probably wanted to hug us,” said Stwalley.
Virtual Public Participation
But for other school boards, especially the ones overseeing districts in fiscal distress with major decisions on the line, virtual turnout to school board meetings has become a problem.
Scranton’s school board made its first attempt at meeting online on March 30. The meeting was set up so that board members could hear a presentation from Candis Finan, the state-appointed administrator who is overseeing spending after the district ran a deficit for several years that led to the ouster of several administrators and school board members.
But just minutes into the board meeting, conducted on Zoom, the session was hacked, sending pornography and racial epithets to board members and the 70 participants who managed to log into the meeting. Some parts of the meeting had to be postponed.
In its second meeting—hosted on YouTube—the board was set to hear from Finan on whether to phase out the district’s pre-K program. Nearly 150 people initially logged on.
Halfway through the meeting, Youtube kicked the district off its platform, apparently after exceeding a cap on numbers of participants for live meetings, said Gilmartin, the board chairman. The meeting garnered more than 450 comments.
“We need to move toward solvency, and the only way we’re going to do that without intervention from the state is to tighten our belt and make difficult choices,” she said.
“We’re trying to balance reacting to the current climate with the pandemic and moving through the process of fiscal recovery. It’s very hard to pay for the sins of the past, but I think we’re all willing to do the hard work. I really want the public to know, we are hearing what you say, we hear it, we’re taking it all in.”