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Buffalo School Board considers abandoning neighborhood meetings

The Buffalo School Board is considering abandoning its two-year practice of holding half its meetings in neighborhood schools and reverting to the practice of returning all meetings to City Hall.

City Hall has long been criticized as inaccessible to the broader public. The doors to the building are locked after hours, the boardroom is cramped, parking is difficult, sightlines are poor, and the threadbare seats in the main boardroom are decades old, with springs threatening to push through the disintegrating cushions.

When public attendance is heavy, many spectators are relegated to an adjacent overflow room where they watch the next-door board meeting on a large-screen TV. And when the board interrupts its public meeting with a closed-door session at its City Hall location, all members of the public are forced to get up and stand outside in a windowless hallway that isn’t air conditioned or drag out a chair if they want to sit.

This partially changed in September 2013, when Board Member James Sampson submitted a resolution that would have had all board and committee meetings held in public school auditoriums where after-hours access, parking and seating would not be problems. In the end, the board approved a compromise measure that would have the first of every two biweekly meetings held in school auditoriums. All remaining board meetings and committee meetings would remain at City Hall.

But last week, board minority bloc members pointed out that the traveling School Board arrangement poses its own set of difficulties. Moving the board meetings to alternate locations is difficult for the board staff, which is responsible for hauling materials, supplies and trays of food for board members to the school sites, they said. Access to an office copier at school sites is harder too, they said.

Moreover, despite the fact that the district has spent more than $60,000 to upgrade its technology so that all board meetings can be live-streamed over the Internet from City Hall or any satellite location, members of the public have complained that the sound quality of the live streams is poor from remote locations.

Unlike in City Hall, where microphones are fixed in front of every board seat, board members wind up passing wireless microphones among themselves when meeting in the schools, and the sound doesn’t always reliably transmit. On a few occasions, ear-splitting feedback has also occurred.

Finally, City Hall is centrally located for everyone in the city and has good access to public transportation. When one board meeting was moved to Southside Elementary School in May, some complained that the location was difficult to reach for some community members.

For all those reasons, minority bloc members said that the board should revert to holding all meetings at City Hall. That position was endorsed by James Kane, the district’s executive director of operations, who described the scheduling and execution process for roving meetings as a hassle, particularly since many schools have competing events scheduled for Wednesday nights, when the board meets. Based on feedback from the board committee, he said he would no longer attempt to schedule outside meeting locations and would schedule all future board meetings at City Hall.

Three members of the board majority – Sampson, Carl Paladino and Larry Quinn – were not present for the committee discussion.

Sampson, who introduced the original transparency resolution, said Monday he not only disagreed with the committee’s position but also pointed out that such a move would require the board to vote to change the 2013 resolution. A decision to change meeting locations could not be made unilaterally in committee, said Sampson, now the board president.

Technical problems related to the live-streaming of meetings may require more training and expertise, he said, but those problems can and should be overcome.

He pointed out that more than 150 people typically attend meetings held at locations like Waterfront Elementary School and the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts.

In contrast, he said, the public seating at City Hall is far more limited and is “incredibly uncomfortable, cramped and it smells.”

“I think it’s disrespectful to the public that wants to come and observe the meeting,” he said. “It’s not about the convenience of board members or staff, it’s about engaging the public.”