Trying to save themselves from their own vanity, District school board members recently made an abortive move to keep the city's fledgling cable TV system from videotaping board meetings.
At a meeting this month, the board voted to reject a proposal by the D.C. Office of Cable Television to show school board meetings on the municipal channel.
"There's a lot of playing to the cameras with television," said board President R. David Hall (Ward 2), who proposed the "no" vote on cable. "Speeches might get a lot longer. Everyone feels compelled to speak to his constituency. I'm not sure there was anyone on the board who really wanted the coverage."
But last week, board members backed off and delayed what they now consider an inevitable decision to let the cameras in.
"We don't have much choice," Hall said. "The public has a right to know, I guess."
And the District's cable system aims to provide the chance to know, said city cable director Richard Maulsby. The municipal channel, which provides coverage of D.C. Council meetings and mayoral news conferences, plans to add school board coverage and call-in shows with District officials in coming months.
"The idea is to allow people to more closely follow the activities of their government," Maulsby said. "The school board's concerns and caution are natural. They're concerned about how we would cover it. But there are no reaction shots, so there's no editorializing. We produce a video record."
The cable system's Channel 16 would use only a wide shot of the board and a closeup of the speaker in its gavel-to-gavel coverage, he said.
About 4,000 subscribers, all in Southeast, have access to the District cable system so far; technicians are wiring about 80 new subscribers a day, Maulsby said. Service is scheduled to be expanded to Northwest in August.
But the small audience is little comfort to politicians who know themselves too well.
"I had a horrible flashback," said board member Phyllis Etheridge Young (At Large). "Remember the days when you could sit home and watch that school board mess on TV? It revives bad memories for us." Board meetings were televised for several years in the late 1970s.
The current board, which prides itself on the sharp contrast between its generally placid deliberations and the sometimes wild arguments that erupted in the 1970s, will give up its relative privacy reluctantly.
Other than a couple of newspaper reporters and an occasional student, the board often goes for months without spectators who do not work for the school system.
"There is something to be said for secrecy," Hall said. "I read recently that the convention to write the Constitution was secret. That tickled me. Well, maybe it was because they were trying to write a good Constitution."