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Public deserves video access to North Carolina education meetings

You can find archived video on Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board meetings, but nothing on the N.C. Board of Education and Charter School Advisory Board.
You can find archived video on Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board meetings, but nothing on the N.C. Board of Education and Charter School Advisory Board.

When the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board makes an important decision, anyone with an internet connection can watch the discussion, live or after the fact.

That’s not true when the North Carolina Board of Education or Charter School Advisory Board meets in Raleigh. Even though their decisions affect students, educators and taxpayers across the state, the only option to follow those meeting from a distance is a live audiostream – if it’s working.

This week brought a perfect illustration of why that outdated technology affects people in Mecklenburg County. The Charter School Advisory Board on Tuesday held a dramatic discussion of reported problems at Thunderbird Preparatory Academy in Cornelius, culminating with a vote to recommend closing the school.

That session raised important questions about Thunderbird: Are kids at risk from black mold? Is this school making good use of more than $3 million a year in taxpayer money, or would the 500 or so students be better off elsewhere?

And it raised questions about the state’s process: Should the Office of Charter Schools have relied on one email to summon school officials to a crucial meeting? When those officials didn’t show up, was it rash or reasonable to recommend pulling the charter?

Even those of us who tuned in don’t have a clear picture of what happened. There were no documents linked to the agenda item. Without visuals, it was difficult to figure out who was speaking. And the audio cut out when the board decided to search for Thunderbird reps, which meant only the people in the room heard the phone call with the Thunderbird board chair and the advisory panel’s vote on charter revocation.

The next steps for Thunderbird will play out at state Board of Education meetings in Raleigh, with the same limits on remote access.

In CMS, if you read news coverage and want to know more you can watch archived video. The state has no such archive.

This isn’t just an issue for people with a vested interest in charter schools, though those ranks are growing rapidly. The state board makes decisions that affect public schools across North Carolina.

The state has requested bids on improving audio, and maybe adding video, at the education building in downtown Raleigh, says Vanessa Jeter, communications director for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.

“We need to see what the cost estimates look like before we can commit,” she said Thursday. “We would love to be able to do both audio and video if cost permits.”

At a time when there never seems to be enough money for classrooms, spending money at the state education building can be unpopular. But I’d suggest that adopting 21st-century technology is essential for public bodies whose turf spans almost 54,000 square miles.

In the meantime, if you care about state education policy – and especially if you’re part of the charter school community – go to www.ncpublicschools.org and select “Sign up for updates.” You’ll get notice of Board of Education and advisory board meetings. You can check the agenda for items of interest – and if you can break off the time, you can try to listen in.

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