Thursday, August 21, 2008

BOE TV Coverage Postponed until at least October; SBNC seeks to restrict video use for democratic accountability

Board of Education TV coverage has been postponed until at least October 2008, with a possibility that there will be no coverage at all this year because no contract for the job has yet been awarded.

Last October, AACPS held a last-minute hearing on an AACPS plan for Board TV coverage. When I suggested modifications to the plan at that hearing, the AACPS TV manager and Public Information Office chief told the Board it had to make an immediate decision on the AACPS Board TV plan if Board TV coverage was to begin when the school year started in August 2008.

After many months of delay (the original request for bid proposals was promised for November 2007 but didn’t come out until spring 2008, a delay AACPS blamed on the Leopold administration), bidding was finally scheduled for June 2008. Unfortunately, no company made a bid by the bidding deadline, although four companies attended the pre-bidding session. I am told that the reason that no company made a bid is that at the last moment AACPS decided to change the bidding specifications by adding some ill-defined electrical requirements. Given the uncertainty over the job requirements, the companies that attended the pre-bidding session decided not to bid. After that fiasco, the project was put out to bid again in July—this time with the last minute changes dropped. For reasons I don’t know, only one of the four companies decided to bid in this second round. Having only one bidder created a red flag for the County, the result of which is that it has not yet signed a contract with the bidder and may choose not to do so. An additional complication is that the original plan was to do the installation during the summer months when the Board meeting room was accessible. The contractor has now refused to commit to a project completion date for the job because AACPS won’t commit to a schedule when the Board meeting room will be available to do the necessary work.

In May 2008 I sent the following letter-to-the-editor to the Capital and Baltimore Sun. The Capital printed it in late June 2008. The letter deals with the larger problem of how AACPS has been budgeting its millions of dollars of PEG funds.

Seeking accountability for the millions of dollars spent on AACPS TV

Over the last five years, millions of tax dollars have gone to funding the school system’s TV operations, most visibly its cable educational access TV channel, including a state-of-the-art broadcast studio and extensive, high priced staff support. What have we gotten for all that money? It is time that there was a general accounting for these expenditures. Some of them have been funded out of a special information technology and PR slush fund generated from the PEG access TV fee (98 cents/month for every household subscribing to cable or FIOS TV; about $16 million over the life of the franchise agreement). The rest comes out of AACPS’s budget.

Consider the rushed, overpriced, and poorly conceived plan to provide school board meeting cable TV coverage starting in late August 2008. Such coverage was decades overdue (many school systems a small fraction of the size of AACPS have had such coverage since the 1970s), but rectifying that deficiency is not an excuse for AACPS’s gold-plated broadcast TV design while undelivering on inexpensive but essential democracy enhancing features such as webcasting, integrated agendas with video, and online access to the resulting records. In the age of YouTube, the school system should have done much better. If small school districts in Vermont one-twentieth the size of Anne Arundel County can afford to do this, why cannot Anne Arundel County? The PR oriented culture of the AACPS TV staff strikingly conflicts with the democracy enhancing goals behind the congressional and county council laws enabling PEG TV funding.

Unfortunately, the school system’s printed budget is essentially useless for gathering information about its TV and PR operations. (Perhaps those who design the budget format are embarrassed that this year the school system spent more on central administration PR than, say, student field trips). Gathering such information would require an oversight hearing with thoughtful, tough questions. That’s the type of hearing we’ve learned not to expect from our school board, but it still would be a pleasant surprise to see.

Lastly, I want to call your attention to a video usage policy announced by the School Board Nominating Commission (SBNC). As you many know, SBNC televised its school board candidate hearings on Anne Arundel County public television. Subsequently, I asked to get a copy of the resulting video records, which I was entitled to do under Maryland’s Public Records Act. SBNC did not send me the copies within the 30 days required under the Public Records Act. But for public bodies in Maryland, such a delay is par for the course and thus hardly noteworthy. What is noteworthy is the notice that was sent to me prior and subsequent to the release of the copies. Here is the note:

These DVDs are provided to you as a courtesy and are intended for your personal use only. The School Board Nominating Commission does not authorize distribution or broadcast in any manner.

For any legal minds who might be reading this, I would be curious about your interpretation of this passage. I know of no passage in the Open Meetings Act or Public Records Act that would support the legality of such a clause. Indeed, I believe that such a clause is a clear violation of the intent of those two acts. Could such a clause be legally binding in any way?

Politically, the intent of this passage is much clearer. Public officials throughout the United States have sought to maintain as much control over public meeting video as they possibly can. AACPS is doing this with its planned board TV coverage, for example, by not making its video footage available over the Internet and requiring that all requests for video go through the school board’s office. This makes it much more costly for the public to access video records of public meetings and can be a very effective way to intimidate members of the public who are fearful of the repercussions of asking for potentially controversial information and won’t do so unless they can do so anonymously. I would be curious what members of this listserv think of such restrictions on public usage of public meeting video records. Do you think this is good or bad for AACPS’ democratic accountability?

--Jim Snider