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Laguna Beach


Live coverage of school board meetings in jeopardy

By BARBARA DIAMOND

The Laguna Beach School Board is considering making permanent the blackout of live coverage of meetings, which has gone dark due to the district’s violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

District Superintendent Jason Viloria learned at a meeting attended by other superintendents that the district was not in compliance with the act because closed captioning was not provided simultaneously with live streaming, according to a district spokeswoman. 

In a press release issued Tuesday, the board announced its intention to seek community input to determine the taxpayer’s interest in continuing live coverage of the meetings. The proposed alternatives are watching or listening to a delayed tape the day after the meeting at which decisions were made; receiving a summary, via newsletter; or attending meetings in person. 

“The press release is intended to reach out to the community at large as we prepare for making a decision on whether we continue live streaming with the ADA-required closed captioning,” board President Jan Vickers wrote in an email. 

“There will be a definite cost increase as the services of a typographer would be needed to do the close captioning during the meetings.

“As our director of technology researches the various cost of options for live streaming and audio recording, with next day access, the board asked that input be sought to learn how much the live streaming is actually used. One way is to ask the community how important that opportunity is in comparison to next day access, the It’s a Wrap summary or attending meetings in person.” 

The district does not tabulate the number of viewers of the live telecasts of the meetings.

An item on the May 14 agenda was the first inkling that a cessation of live coverage was an issue. It came up when the board was asked for direction on audio-visual needs for the board meeting room.

“The idea to conduct a Thoughtexchange to examine methods of access preferred by the community was brought up by the superintendent during the board discussion,” said Leisa Winston, assistant superintendent, human resources and public communications.

Viloria was hired in March of 2016. Live streaming of the board meetings had begun two months earlier. 

“It should also be noted that there was no discussion of removing the recorded video option; we continue to record and post board meeting video the day after the meeting,” said Winston. “We are able to maintain that function because of a free closed-captioning service for recorded video. The concern pertains to live streaming, for which free closed-captioning is not [presently] available.”

Thoughtexchange is an online discussion platform that allows participants to anonymously share thoughts on a topic and rate thoughts shared by others. 

The exchange is available at the link here and will remain open to public participation on the question of live streaming until 8 p.m., June 17, according to the district’s press release.

At press time, 138 people had participated in the Thoughtexchange, with 148 posted “thoughts.” 

According to Winston, there is no way to prevent people from participating multiple times.

“Since we don’t have individuals sign in, it is true that participants may be double counted if participation takes place on multiple devices with separate IP addresses. With regards to the ‘stuffing the ballot box’ concern, if the District suspects that a single participant or small group has attempted to influence the exchange, Thoughtexchange developers can run a detailed analysis to determine if there are validity concerns that need to be addressed,” Winston said.

Board watchdog Howard Hills questioned the motives behind the discussion board. “An anonymous opinion poll is both unreliable and an undemocratic gimmick pretending to want public input,” said Hills. “If live streaming goes, the video system mysteriously will go on the blink [as happened at a meeting in December], and the return of audio recording only will be next. That makes finding a record of a meeting nearly impossible. We should be promoting participation, not cutting it off.”

Board member Dee Perry, recently at odds with the other board members and Viloria, stated that transparency and public access are legally required and important.

“With a video, there can be no argument about what was said, which can happen when it is only written minutes,” said Perry. “With audio only, it can be confusing to figure out who is actually speaking. 

“I am a bit torn about spending an extra $16,000 for live stream captioning, but I want the public to have real time access. At our last board meeting that was streamed, a citizen saw what was happening on the live stream and then grabbed her purse and rushed down to the meeting. Without live streaming this would not be possible.

“In my opinion, we need to be as transparent as possible and live streaming certainly helps with that. Also, we may be able to figure out a way to reduce the cost.”

Closed captioned, recorded meetings cost the district nothing. However, to simultaneously close caption each live-streamed meeting would cost between $140 and $200 an hour. The approximate annual cost is $16,000, including administrative/setup costs, based on an average number of Board meetings of average length, according to the district office. 

Based on available information, the district has an operating budget of $65,480,555 for calendar year 2019.

According to Winston, the Board has not yet determined a date for which the data will be discussed or a decision will be made.

The next board meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, June 11.

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