Our opinion: Virtual school board meetings should be here for good
This summer, the Portland Tribune ran a series of articles called COVID Silver Linings: Things that had gotten better during the pandemic crisis, such as more outdoor dining and less air pollution.
During the pandemic, one thing that changed was the rise of public school board meetings held virtually via video conference call.
Meeting online made sense during the peak of the crisis, when most people were not fully vaccinated, and social distancing remained one of the best ways to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
But we believe online school board meetings will make sense in the future, as well. And if they work for school districts, they ought to become the norm for other types of meetings of elected officials, such as regional agencies, cities and counties.
If we had any doubts about this, they were dispelled last week when the governing board of Oregon's largest school district could not conduct its business during an in-person public meeting.
We firmly believe that the protestors who crashed the Oct. 27 Portland Public Schools board meeting have the right to share their views about vaccines and masks in public schools. But they don't have the right to flaunt the laws requiring masks in schools.
This kind of disruption started long before the pandemic. Four years ago, protestors upset about police shootings in Portland shut down city council meetings.
In those instances, no one's free speech was protected.
So, what's the downside of virtual public meetings? We have had reporters monitoring school board proceedings for decades. It's hard to think of what has been lost during the advent of video conference meetings. Presentations by district staff? They still happen. Communications from the unions and student groups? Ditto.
How about testimony from parents, community members and students?
If anything, testifying became easier during the pandemic than it had been before. Parents don't have to drag little kids to the meeting or find babysitters. Many people get nervous speaking in public, and last week's events at PPS show they have a good reason. For some, it's far easier to sit at one's kitchen table with a laptop when offering testimony.
One argument against virtual meetings is the technology gap. As our reporting showed earlier this summer, low-income households, rural residents and Oregonians of color are less likely to have laptops or good internet service, thus blocking their ability to testify. That is a legitimate concern, one that districts— urban, suburban and rural —should address.
"Testimony stations,"with laptops and internet access, could be set up at schools, which would allow anyone to have their say, but would avoid stuffing people into a crowded board room. Neighborhood schools tend to be closer to families than school district headquarters, and most families already have some familiarity and comfort with their local school.
Such "testimony stations"would be especially good in Oregon's large rural districts, where testifying in the past meant long drives there and long drives home.
Low-income families were hampered from testifying before the pandemic, of course. If you hold two (or three) jobs, and if you can't afford daycare, going to a board meeting is tough. That disparity of access is decades old, and perhaps the best way to finally address it is via virtual meetings with designated places to testify, such as schools.
Again, online meetings look to be an improvement over in-person gatherings.
Finally, there are the environmental benefits: Fewer people driving to meetings; less need to heat or cool government-owned buildings at night.
What would be lost is the ability to disrupt and shut down a board meeting.
The First Amendment provides the right to free speech. Elected officials must do everything possible not to infringe upon that. But disrupting other people from talking is not a right guaranteed in the Constitution, and elected bodies are under no obligation to put up with that.
Virtual meetings make such disruptions harder to accomplish. And if you can't stop your neighbor from talking, maybe you'll have an incentive to testify the old-fashioned way: By taking the microphone and stating your case.
We believe school boards in Oregon should go to full-time virtual meetings. And if it works for them, other elected bodies should follow suit.
Something good might come out of this terrible pandemic: More and easier testimony, and less environmental impact while maintaining free speech and access to elected leaders.
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