More than 100 community members signed onto Zoom for a special joint meeting of the Newbury and West Geauga boards of education Wednesday evening, but the high turnout of hopeful participants combined with technical difficulties forced the districts to reschedule.

As community members signed on to participate in the community engagement meeting, hoping to have a say in the fate of Newbury schools’ facilities, they were instead met with a message that another meeting was already in place. A few minutes later, some were then faced with a different message that maximum occupancy had already been met.

Despite plans for the event in the works since the two school boards’ first joint meeting back in mid-February, as well as weeks of consulting with a facilitator from Burges and Burges Strategists, the meeting could not proceed Wednesday night. The districts have since rescheduled it for May 28 at 7 p.m.

“There was a lot of planning that went into the meeting, and that doesn't show in what happened Wednesday night because we didn’t get the meeting started,” West Geauga BOE President Bill Beers said in an interview with the Times. “We understand how frustrated people were not being able to get in when we were going to have the meeting. We also were frustrated that it could not occur.”

Dr. Beers noted that even some board members and district officials were unable to gain access to the meeting.

Newbury BOE President Maggie Zock said the districts worked hard to not only organize the meeting, but to reach out to public entities like the Newbury Township Trustees and the Geauga County Commissioners to include them so they could hear what the public’s interest is in the facilities.

“As you can imagine, the work to get everybody engaged and ready to have that discussion took place, so it was a disappointment that we couldn't have that engagement on that evening,” Mrs. Zock said, “especially as the time that we have to be present in the conversations at a board is shortening.” As of July 1, the Newbury Local Board of Education will dissolve after Newbury schools transfer to West Geauga.

So, just what went wrong?

Dr. Beers explained that after publishing the meeting notice, their facilitator, Dione DeMitro of Burges and Burges, suggested changing the format from a standard Zoom meeting to a Zoom webinar to allow for additional engagement features. Dr. Beers said that despite the boards having received a new webinar URL, it was supposed to maintain the same connection as the initial link sent to the public.

That ended up not being the case, however, he said, explaining that this was the cause of the message people received that another meeting was in progress. Upon realizing this, the boards tried to switch back to the link the community used to access the meeting but discovered there were more than 100 people trying to gain access. He said this put the current licensed account at maximum capacity, shuttering out community members and board members alike.

“We feel that it is very important that any of these kinds of meetings be held as demanded by [Ohio] Sunshine Laws,” Dr. Beers said. “We had to meet those requirements, and although it meant frustrating times for all of us, we felt it was more important to do it legally than to go ahead with some kind of meetings there.”

To adhere to their 48-hour notice requirement for non-emergency meetings under Ohio Sunshine Laws, Dr. Beers explained that the boards could not simply send out a new link and had to reschedule the meeting with a new webinar link instead.

To ensure a much smoother meeting next week, Dr. Beers and Mrs. Zock said their facilitator has acquired the capability to host up to 1,000 participants through Zoom. Dr. Beers said a new link will be sent out shortly for the May 28 meeting.

Another breakout meeting will take place shortly after, they said, once the districts review the community’s input.

While faced with the setback of having to reschedule the meeting, both agree that they were pleased with the level of interest and look forward to hearing from the public.

“The positive of that is we did see that there was a lot of interest in engaging in that conversation,” Mrs. Zock said. “And so now what we take away from that is that we need to focus on trying to keep them engaged and get this rescheduled and messaged as quickly as possible so that we don't lose that momentum.”

Dr. Beers said he was “astounded” to see such a high turnout for the meeting and was glad to see so many people interested in sharing their ideas.

“I guess in retrospect I shouldn't have been [surprised]. I know there's lots of people in Newbury that are very concerned,” he said, noting both the territory transfer and the fate of the Newbury facilities.

Mrs. Zock added that the turnout was exactly what she had hoped for.

“We had planned to do many public town hall type meetings to engage [the community] with Dione, our facilitator, in person,” she said, mentioning plans of breakout sessions for more interactions. “Then all of a sudden it changed,” she added of the coronavirus pandemic. “This is what we can do with what we have. The input and feedback and brainstorming from our public is critical in the long-term support of not only what happens with the building and property, but long-term support of our new district and blending us together as a new community within the West Geauga district.”

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