The Lakeville school board has decided to stop broadcasting and recording some of its meetings to allow for more candid conversations, a move that does not violate state law but is troubling some residents and government watchdogs.
"We're just trying to find a way to allow for more robust discussions," said Judy Keliher, school board chairwoman. "[Board members] are just uncomfortable speaking their minds, that it might be misconstrued."
The Lakeville school board began livestreaming and recording its work sessions — which are generally meant for in-depth discussions but not taking votes — about six years ago to increase transparency.
At the school board's Jan. 6 work session, Superintendent Michael Baumann and several board members said they didn't like having work sessions recorded. It was interfering with the board's ability to get to the "essence and nexus" of matters, Baumann said.
"I never wanted them televised but I was told I wasn't being transparent at the time," said Terry Lind, a board member. "It was frustrating because it was a show. I'm sorry, you had to look good because you were on camera."
Keliher said nixing the recordings saves money, since there's a cost to having someone operate the cameras. Few people watched work sessions anyway, she said, and those who did might have had the misconception that decisions were being made there when board members were just having a discussion.
Many school boards don't broadcast or tape their work sessions, which are sometimes called workshops or study sessions. Lakeville will continue taping regular meetings, where board members give a summary report of what happened at the latest work session.
Minnesota's Open Meeting Law does not require either type of meeting to be broadcast or recorded, though most metro-area school boards record regular meetings.
Greg Abbott, spokesman for the Minnesota School Boards Association, said the group doesn't keep statistics on how many school boards record work sessions, but he "gets the feeling lots of them do not."
Matt Ehling, a Minnesota Coalition on Government Information board member, said he doesn't know of any school boards that have started recording and then stopped. He finds the Lakeville school board's rationale for discontinuing broadcasting "a little bit troubling" and "problematic for oversight," he said.
"I just kind of reject … that stance," he said. "They have to get used to the fact that public scrutiny is part of the role."
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, governments have relied heavily on virtual meetings, often livestreaming them for members of the public to watch online.
Ehling said that while governing bodies don't ordinarily have to broadcast meetings, school boards must provide a way for the public to monitor them if they're invoking the state statute allowing them to meet remotely due to COVID-19. In that case, they must publicly broadcast both work sessions and regular meetings.
In Lakeville, the school board has held regular meetings and work sessions in person for months. As of Thursday, a note on the district website said that seating is limited to 25 people. "Because of this, the public is encouraged to watch the work session at home via our livestream on LETV," it read.
Dan Callahan, a Lakeville resident whose four children graduated from Lakeville South High School, said it was "disappointing to see [the school board] roll back public access for the stated reason that they don't like to be on camera."
Though meetings are being held in person, recording work sessions provides a safe way for residents worried about COVID-19 to stay informed, he said.
He was struck by board members admitting that their comments would be different with the camera off, he said.
"We're just asking for the ability to see exactly what they say," he said.
Callahan said he called and left a message for Baumann when he couldn't find the Jan. 6 work session recording in which the school board decided not to record work sessions. The district had already taken it down, he said.
"It's a Catch-22," he said of not being able to watch the video. "This is exactly why they should be recorded."
Erin Adler • 612-673-1781