The Onteora Board of Education has opted to continue meeting via videoconference as allowed by a bill signed by Gov. Kathy Hochul, but President Kevin Salem stressed it is not easier to meet online. “I just want to remind everybody, it’s not out of convenience and frankly, it’s not more convenient for us to meet online. I think everyone here will tell you that we spend extra layers of time and many extra hours, Salem said at the January 11 meeting.
Government bodies may continue to meet remotely until the COVID-19 public health emergency ends. A temporary amendment to the Open Meetings Law allowing remote meetings expired January 15.
“I don’t see (District Clerk) Fern (Amster). I can’t ask further questions, you know, unless I email her or take other time go to the school to meet. We have meetings Thursday in person, it’s not like we’re doing everything remotely. So I just want to let the public know this isn’t about our convenience, because it is not convenient to us,” he said.
But several trustees wanted remote meetings to continue because they foster greater public participation.
“Prior to becoming a board trustee, I might be one of the only people in the audience at a board meeting, and when we did have a couple of in-person board meetings in July, I believe it was July and August, there was nobody. There were like maybe two people in the audience,” Trustee Cindy Bishop said. “But there were several people joining us remotely and it feels to me like we have much better attendance, you know, currently through the remote model than we ever had in person.”
Vice President Emily Sherry agreed. “I think that having remote access while we are allowed to do remote meetings, offers a transparency that the community doesn’t seem to always feel like they’re getting,” she said. “It also offers a much greater ability for people to kind of jump in when they’re able to and see what’s going on. The attendance that we had a couple of meetings that we did do in person this year… I think once we had one person that wasn’t Officer Tom (School Resource Officer Tom Sharon), so I really enjoy having the community with us, and I really enjoy the transparency of it. I think it’s really important.”
Trustee Laurie Osmond also agrees the remote meetings promote greater participation.
“People at home with children can participate in our meetings instead of getting a babysitter to come in person. When we did have our in-person meetings and attempted to still have virtual participation, we had a lot of technical issues that frustrated people. People were unable to hear. People couldn’t see us very well,” Osmond said. “I remember there being a lot of frustration with people who wanted to participate and speak and really couldn’t because we were trying to do both, and that didn’t really go very well.”
Trustee Dafne DeJesus said she felt a little anxious at the in-person meeting because the board couldn’t really socially distance. She also felt the remote option allows for better participation. “There’s a lot of parents that I see participating now who previously really couldn’t because they’re single parents, or maybe they don’t have transportation to get to the school, and now they’re more able to participate because it’s virtual,” she said.
Salem said he looked on his screen and saw 44 attendees, which was probably more than the total attendance for all of 2018, but noted remote meetings will come to an end at some point.
“We are going to meet in person again and there will be three people there and that will be a good night,” he said. “But for right now, people have concerns that it is best for them to hear directly from us and to be able to participate, and it is best for the able to participate from home. We would not want 45 people in the cafeteria at Bennett and I understand that.”