Steamboat School Board meetings will remain virtual for foreseeable future
The Steamboat Springs School Board will continue to hold meetings in a virtual format for the foreseeable future, as a plan to move meetings to Steamboat Springs Middle School will take time to accommodate.
The district is pursuing a move to the middle school to allow for a larger public audience that was already difficult to fit in the meeting room at the district office on Seventh Street. Board members also point to some of their recent virtual meetings that have had dozens of people logging in to participate.
But while other public bodies have returned to in-person meetings that still allow participation virtually, district Technology Director Tim Miles said there are several obstacles that would need to be overcome to make these meetings possible.
“When the board member speaks, it is coming out of the speakers in the room, then that sound carries back into the microphone,” Miles said. “It causes a reverberance, like a circle.”
When Miles told the board about the issues in a meeting earlier this month, members said it made sense to keep the status quo for now until a solution that Miles was confident about was in place.
“The last thing that we want to do is create a situation where we have meetings that are unsuccessful or unproductive because of technological issues,” said board member Chresta Brinkman at that meeting.
There are other problems as well, Miles said, such as how a visual presentation is shown in a live setting while also being shown in a way that is easy to view online. Trying to allow people to participate on Zoom at home while the board meets in person is another hurdle, he said.
“Can these be overcome? Yes,” Miles said. “But you need to spend some time on the audio with some qualified audio folks to bang it out and do it correctly.”
The Steamboat School Board is the only elected body in the county that is not holding its meetings at least partially in person right now, as other district’s school boards, each town board or city council and the Routt County Board of Commissioners have all returned to meetings with the public and elected officials physically present.
At the crux of the issue for the Steamboat district is trying to make these meetings accessible to as many people as possible while balancing a desire to return to a meeting where people can attend and participate in person.
The earliest school board meetings could return to being in person would be November or December, depending on when Miles anticipates getting some of the microphones and other technology he has ordered specifically for the meetings. With his current equipment, Miles said he could run about three microphones, but a school board meeting would likely take seven or eight.
Miles said places like Centennial Hall where the Steamboat Springs City Council meets have long been outfitted to broadcast these meetings with speakers, microphones and cameras strategically placed that allow council to take both virtual and in-person public comment.
Several local government bodies utilize a system called the Owl, which is a 360-degree camera, speaker and microphone combination made specifically to broadcast in-person meetings online. Miles said these systems still have similar problems.
“If I’m going to present something, a PowerPoint or something, where am I going to do it?” Miles said.
The Routt County commissioners use the Owl and allow people to participate virtually and in person, with county employees frequently joining from their offices elsewhere in the building. To display presentations and people who join virtually, commissioners use a large TV on wheels. People there in person also log into the Zoom meeting and share their screen when needing to display a presentation.
“I think we have done a pretty nice job of being able to work that hybrid situation,” said Commissioner Tim Redmond. “I feel like, as a government organization, we’re meeting the needs of the people, giving them whatever is going to work for them, so we can continue to keep moving forward.”
The Hayden School District also uses the Owl and sets up a projector to share presentations.
Miles said some of the hybrid meetings he has participated in have been “brutal,” and he wants to ensure the board avoids those issues when it does return. He recommended that the board postpone a return to in-person meetings until they would be able to meet without masks, which the district currently requires for everyone.
The board also indicated it favored choosing one option or the other, with members preferring to stay on Zoom or move to in-person but not try to pull off a hybrid meeting. Miles said either way they do meetings, they will still be livestreamed and on the district’s website to view later — both features that the Hayden and South Routt school districts do not offer.
“If we are going to go into the real world, I think we should just keep it real. If we are going to be virtual, let’s just keep it virtual,” said board member Lara Craig. “One or the other, that is my opinion.”
Board Vice-President Katy Lee said she agreed, and if someone wished to participate in public comment but couldn’t attend in person, the board gives emails the same weight.
“We give equal weight to comment that is at the meeting versus email, so anyone who can’t make it to the meeting can email instead,” Lee said. “There are other methods of getting us input.”
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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