Cobb schools cut public comments from live, virtual meeting

The Cobb County School District cut public comment portion from the school board's live, virtual meeting.

The Cobb County School District cut public comment portion from the school board's live, virtual meeting.

People who tuned in to watch Thursday’s live stream of the Cobb County School Board’s virtual meeting had to wait nearly an hour before they could view the action.

That’s because the school district did not broadcast the public comment portion of the meeting. Instead, viewers were treated to a continuous loop of music and a message saying the meeting had not begun when, in fact, school board members were hearing those comments.

Before its regular meeting, the board held a public hearing at 9:30 a.m. for its fiscal year 2021 budget and some residents were allowed to talk about anything related to that topic. That public hearing was broadcast live, and speaker comments were heard during the 30-minute meeting.

Public comments during the 10 a.m. regular meeting were not streamed. The district planned to add public comments to the end of the virtual meeting video at a later date, but system spokesman Eric Rauch said due to “human error” the public comments were not recorded.

“Maintaining the security of the virtual lobby and ensuring public commenters complied with board policy necessitated a third virtual lobby which was supposed to be recorded and added to the board meeting recording,” Rauch said.

Rauch said the district blacked out the public comment portion of the meeting because the virtual meeting format doesn’t allow the district to verify if speakers live in Cobb, own property in the county or are district staff members.

When meetings are held in-person, Cobb school board policy requires the district to verify if a speaker falls into one of those categories, Rauch said, explaining this is usually done by checking a speaker’s state-issued identification. Once speakers from the regular meeting are verified, their comments will be added to the meeting for the public to see. Rauch said the video should be uploaded to the district’s website by the end of Friday.

Cobb County School District’s policy is “total rubbish,” said Richard T. Griffiths, spokesman for the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. Georgia law requires local school boards to provide a public comment period during their monthly meetings, he said.

“People in Cobb County should be outraged because it meant that they don’t get to hear what their fellow citizens asked the school board to do or not to do, and they don’t get to hear the ideas from the people who spoke to that board,” he said.

Griffiths also said the First Amendment guarantee of free speech and Georgia’s Open Meetings Act do not stop at the county line or add restrictions on a person’s ability to speak at a government meeting based on who they work for or whether they own property.

“Frankly, if the school board is listening to public comment, the public deserves to know who they are listening to and what those people are saying,” Griffiths said.

Cobb parent Caroline Halko said the process was “weird.” She signed up to talk about what she described as board member David Banks’ “horrific” comments on COVID-19 and the district’s reopening plan, but said she didn’t receive an email confirmation until the moment before the meeting began. When the process got underway she didn’t have time to check to see if her sound or video was working and wasn’t told how long she would have to speak.

If the district is worried about security concerns, Halko said the system could consider adding a five-second delay on its streaming service.

“We have the technology, but it’s my opinion that they don’t want to hear from the public,” she said.

Superintendent Chris Ragsdale said the district “had to take some additional security measures and put those in place to make sure that we protect it as much as we can against the bad characters that are out there.”