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Opinion: School board needs a sound system so hearing-impaired reporter can understand what everyone says

By Ralph Echtinaw

As editor and publisher (and sole employee) of the St. Louis Sentinel, I have attended many meetings of the school board and city council for three years now.

The city council has a decent sound system, so this hearing-impaired reporter can understand 90 percent of what is said by plugging headphones into the city’s equipment. 

The school board is the polar opposite. It meets in the high school media center where acoustics leave much to be desired and there is no sound system. Even with top-of-the-line $7,000 hearing aids and sitting in the front row this reporter comprehends no more than 40 percent of what is said at board meetings. Fortunately, Superintendent Jennifer McKittrick doesn’t complain when I lay my recorder in front of her because if not for that I wouldn’t be able to quote her or even know exactly what she said.

When internet Zoom meetings commenced a year ago I wasn’t able to record what was said, but the sound quality was better than ever. 

That made a huge difference at school board meetings. Suddenly I could understand almost everything that everyone said. So I was disappointed this week when the board started meeting in person again.

The acoustics are no better, and now everyone’s speech is muffled by the masks they’re wearing. They did wire everyone for sound this time but only so folks in an overflow room might be able to hear. I tried that, and the sound coming from two small speakers on a desktop was woefully inadequate. So I returned to the meeting room, where at least I could look at the people saying things I don’t understand.

That’s why I’m not writing a school board meeting story this week. Well, that and being required to wear a mask during the meetings. Masks are extremely uncomfortable for me unless I’m moving around and doing things. And since I don’t get paid for writing Sentinel stories there’s only so much discomfort I’m willing to put up with.

Zoom meetings are illegal again in Michigan starting next month (with an exemption for special circumstances), and I for one am disappointed. Ironically, it took a pandemic to create conditions under which the hard-of-hearing could understand what’s said at St. Louis School Board meetings.

I’m in no position to tell the school board how to spend its money, but if I had my wish they’d buy a sound system similar to what the city uses. What do you say, school board members?

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