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New West school board gets set for hybrid meetings

The new meeting set-up will cost the school district up to $20,000.
Parent Laura Kwong addresses the previous school board at an Oct. 25 meeting. Starting this spring, parents will have the opportunity to take part in hybrid meetings — where trustees meet in-person, but members of the public can take part virtually.

The New Westminster school board is moving ahead with a plan for hybrid meetings starting this spring.

School District 40 will invest in new video equipment, at a cost of up to $20,000, to allow for full livestreaming of its public board and operations committee meetings. The new video equipment will be integrated with the district’s existing audio equipment to allow trustees’ discussion to be heard clearly and to accommodate audience participation — remotely and in-person — during comment and question periods.

Trustees made the decision Jan. 31 during their regular board meeting, held online via Zoom.

Parents at the meeting urged them to continue to allow virtual participation in meetings — as opposed to returning to fully in-person meetings and simply providing a live, one-way broadcast of the proceedings.

“There is a distinction between replaying meetings on Youtube, which is a great way to share information, but it’s different from hybrid format,” said Krista Macaulay, an urban planner and the PAC chair at Lord Tweedmsuir Elementary School. “While passive engagement is important, we also need to provide equitable and accessible platforms for active participation and active listening.”

The board agreed hybrid meetings — with trustees meeting in-person, but members of the public able to take part virtually — were the way to go.

“We’ve heard from enough people in the community who would like a hybrid option,” trustee Danielle Connelly said. “I can speak to that as well; as a parent, I was never able to attend school board meetings — whether it was little kids, my husband working shift work, sports, whatever the case was.”

She said the level of parent participation that happened when virtual meetings started during COVID was “a very positive thing that’s come out of a terrible time.”

“It’s shown us that we have room for a lot more engagement at our board table, and I’m in favour of anything that will facilitate that,” she said.

$20K price tag raises questions at school board table

Exactly how to accommodate hybrid meetings, however, was a matter for some discussion.

Some trustees suggested the district would be better off using a more “makeshift” technological approach, using the equipment it bought to start livestreaming meetings in 2019.

“I’m not in favour of spending $20,000,” trustee Dee Beattie said. “I know we spent an awful lot of money on those microphones and cameras to get that set up.”

But Jawad Razzaq, the district’s head of IT, said the existing equipment is a “mishmash” of different components from different vendors and requires a great deal of prep work to make sure it’s functional every time there’s a meeting.

“What we are trying to achieve is to bring in a more purpose-built, more purposeful and a professional solution that is easy to use, easy to manage,” he said, noting the new video platform would be designed to “seamlessly integrate” with the audio technology.

Trustee Cheryl Sluis admitted she suffered some “sticker shock” from the $20,000 price tag but said she trusted the IT recommendation.

“If $20,000 is the price we have to pay to ensure that we are getting really good quality opportunity for public engagement and participation, then I am OK with moving forward with spending some money,” she said.

Superintendent Karim Hachlaf spoke in support of the proposal as outlined by Razzaq.

“I don’t want to spend a dollar if it’s not going to achieve what I’ve outlined to the board. I rely on and trust my technical expertise from my director of IT,” he said.

In the end, trustees agreed to have the district spend up to $20,000 on the necessary equipment, with an eye to starting hybrid meetings no later than April — or sooner, if the equipment can be acquired and installed more quickly than anticipated.

When does the New Westminster school board meet?

  • The next SD40 board meetings are its committee meetings on Tuesday, Feb. 7, with education committee in-person at 3:30 p.m. at POWER alternate school, and operations committee online via Zoom at 6:30 p.m.
  • If all goes as planned, the first fully hybrid meeting will be the operations committee meeting on Tuesday, April 11 at 6:30 p.m., followed by the full board meeting on Tuesday, April 25 at 7 p.m.

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