WA parents deserve online access to school board meetings

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An overflowing crowd attended a meeting Thursday night, July 22, 2021, in the Swift Water Elementary Community Hall where the Peninsula <a class=School Board voted on resolutions on “critical race theory” and sex education.” title=”An overflowing crowd attended a meeting Thursday night, July 22, 2021, in the Swift Water Elementary Community Hall where the Peninsula School Board voted on resolutions on “critical race theory” and sex education.” loading=”lazy”/>

An overflowing crowd attended a meeting Thursday night, July 22, 2021, in the Swift Water Elementary Community Hall where the Peninsula School Board voted on resolutions on “critical race theory” and sex education.

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We’ve seen it right here in the North West, time and time again: local school board meetings — which have historically flown under the radar — have become hotspots for the most contentious and charged issues of our time.

The critical debate over race theory — started by pro-conservative activists like Chris Rufo — has embroiled several local school boards, just as it has across the country. The same goes for anti-mask crusaders. Last November, the Clover Park School Board in Lakewood publicly condemned a member who called district equity officers “racial pimps” in email exchanges. The list continues.

Frankly, there’s a lot to follow – for parents who are already trying their best to put food on the table and participate in their child’s education, and local journalists who often review meetings of the local school board.

That’s the kind of thing that makes Washington’s Public Records Act so important — which was designed to ensure that state residents have access to records and records maintained by state and local agencies. Missing a weekday school board meeting shouldn’t mean missing how your local school district makes decisions, and the paper trail that’s created behind closed doors is just as important.

That’s why McClatchy was encouraged Tuesday when the state House of Representatives unanimously passed HB 1973, which would require that school board meetings in Washington be audio-recorded. It would also encourage districts to make recordings available online. Surprisingly, in 2022, it’s not a law that exists – but it certainly should.

The McClatchy newspapers were also encouraged by a late amendment to the bill that closed a potential loophole that rightly worried public transparency advocates like the Washington Coalition for Open Government.

Together, there is little doubt that the bill and the amendment now making its way through the Senate would represent a major improvement over the current state of affairs. But even if it passes and is signed into law, a review of HB 1973 reveals more work to be done.

First, about this loophole…

As originally written, HB 1973 would have required anyone requesting minutes of school board meetings to include a specific meeting date. If no date was indicated, the request could have been refused. This would have meant that anyone curious now about how their school board’s elected leaders discussed issues such as special education or sex education, or even what was served in the cafeteria, should have known the exact meeting at time of conversation.

If the goal is open and transparent government, this would have been an unnecessary obstacle, not to mention a dangerous precedent to set for other state and local agencies. Fortunately, an amendment submitted by Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-Seattle) — which allows requests spanning “a range of dates” — largely addresses that shortcoming.

State Representative Skyler Rude, a Walla Walla native and representative of the 16th House District, is the main sponsor of HB 1973. Rude says

McClatchy that he was inspired to take action after learning that a number of school districts in his corner of the country were not recording board meetings. Rude said he was happy to work with Pollet — who sits on the board of the Washington Coalition for Open Government — to improve the bill.

“I was interested in what was happening at the school board level, and because of my schedule, I am often unable to attend school board meetings. So I would like to go back and listen to what I do in the Legislative Assembly. If I can’t attend a committee meeting, I go back and listen to the recording. And there was just no recording,” said Rude, whose bill would require recordings to be kept for five years.

“It seemed like a good step towards more transparent and accessible government,” Rude said.

It certainly is. But as we noted above, this will not automatically fix all problems. To start, the invoice simply encourages districts to make records easily accessible online. Although Rude is confident that posting records online would be the “easiest way to comply with the disclosure requirement” included in HB 1973, some districts will need to step up their open government game if that is the case.

Especially as local school board meetings become increasingly contentious, Washington residents deserve simple and easy online access to how decisions that impact their children are made — for free.

This editorial review was written for Matt Driscoll, [email protected]

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