While daily life has been disrupted, essential functions must go on amid the coronavirus crisis—including the budgeting process for the state’s nearly 700 school districts.
Even with their members and constituents in lockdown mode, school boards working on 2020-21 district budgets can and should continue to abide by the provisions of the state’s Open Meetings Law. Physical distancing is no excuse for denying the public’s right to participate in the process or vote on the final budget recommendations.
This is an installment in a special series of #NYCoronavirus Chronicles by Empire Center analysts, focused on New York’s state and local policy response to the Coronavirus pandemic.
Emergency measures promulgated by Governor Cuomo last week suspended the requirement of “in-person access” to public meetings, freeing schools and government entities to hold meetings online. The suspension authorized members of government bodies to meet virtually via teleconference, “provided that the public has the ability to view or listen to such proceeding and that such meetings are recorded and later transcribed.”
But schools and other government entities can and should do better than that.
Easily accessible and free or low-cost technologies exist and create a path for continuing to provide public access to government proceedings. What’s more, many of these services have integrations that allow for audience participation, i.e., taxpayers watching from home could raise a (virtual) hand to ask a question, or wait in a (virtual) line to submit a comment or statement.
None of this needs to be difficult. Services provide video conferencing for up to hundreds of participants. Most computers and smartphones have the camera capabilities needed. Services also provide audio access for anyone without a capable device or internet access.
And it does not need to be a free-for-all. Video and teleconference can be moderated and managed so that the public can participate in an orderly way.
Many districts and municipal governments around New York already have moved their meetings to these services – for example, the Shenendehowa Central School District will allow taxpayers to submit questions by email during tonight’s virtual board meeting.
Others need to catch up. For example, while the Yonkers school board webcast its March 18 meeting, its website stipulated “public comments will not be taken”—when, in fact, it could easily have allowed for comments to be submitted in writing. There was no evidence that Yonkers’ March 23 meeting allowed for public comments either.
This, while teachers and students around the state are conducting class by videoconference.
Earlier this week, the New York State School Boards Association called for moving school board elections and budget votes to a later date. That might be the prudent move. But they also suggest possibly finding “some other alternative,” which is a little too vague for comfort.
No one knows what the landscape will look like in two weeks, let alone two months when school budget votes are currently set to take place. What we do know is that the Covid-19 pandemic should not be used as an all-purpose excuse for removing taxpayer access and participation in government business.