R2 board suspends public comment

SCSBA Recommends Districts Not Accept FOIA Requests During Pandemic

COLUMBIA – In an effort to curtail the spread of COVID-19, the Richland Two school district has followed the lead of other government agencies by streaming meetings electronically.

No member of the public may attend meetings in person nor participate in public comments. They can listen to audio on the district’s website.

By a 6-1 vote, the Richland Two board voted Tuesday night to suspend policy BEDH, which spells out the district’s public participation policy. Board trustee Lindsay Agostini opposed the measure.

In a related vote, the board also voted to cancel the April 7 meeting, citing a lack of business to address. That vote passed unanimously.

Agostini said she voted against suspending policy BEDH, fearing it would prevent parents with students facing expulsion hearings from addressing the board.

“While not frequent, on more than one occasion we’ve had parents come and address the board in public participation,” she said. “As long as we’re having a board meeting and talking about appeals, I can’t support this.”

Trustee Amelia McKie said suspending the policy doesn’t prevent parents or the community from communicating concerns to the board. She said it’s imperative to make meetings “more skeletal” to protect district staff, students and the public from COVID-19, also known as the novel coronavirus.

Initially, the board agenda only stated that the board planned to vote to take action on policy BEDH, without any explanation. Board agendas typically include supporting documentation further explaining the measure being voted on.

After The Voice brought this to Richland Two’s attention, the district amended the agenda to state that the board planned to suspend policy BEDH.

The decision to suspend public participation came at the recommendation of the SCSBA, according to the revised agenda. On its website, the SCSBA recommends “temporarily eliminating public comment” periods as a way to curtail COVID-19.

“If your board policy allows for public comment, the board should make a motion and approve temporary suspension of the associated policy… until the COVID-19 threat has ended,” the SCSBA site states.

Jay Bender, a media law attorney with the S.C. Press Association, of which The Voice is a member, said there’s no law requiring local governments to provide a public comment period. Public bodies are only required to allow the public to speak at meetings where there’s a public hearing, such as during budget passage.

The S.C. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) also allows public bodies to conduct business electronically. Streaming can be by video or audio; the law only states such meetings be broadcast electronically.

“It would be better if they could stream it,” Bender said.

Richland Two’s audio streaming encountered some hiccups Tuesday evening.

“The school board association has never thought anything should be public. They are run by superintendents whose goal is to keep all unfavorable news about schools out of the press.”

Jay Bender, Media Attorney

The Voice attended the meeting remotely and experienced occasional interruptions in audio. Sometimes audio volume fluctuated and other times, audio cut out altogether.

During a discussion of cancelling the April 7 board meeting, Agostini reported that she couldn’t hear Superintendent Dr. Baron Davis’ explanation of the measure.

“That was a very bad echo. I didn’t hear a word that was said,” she said.

Other board members reported not being able to hear portions of the meeting.

Richland County resident Gus Philpott, a frequent critic of the board, vehemently objects to suspending public input. He also takes exception with virtual meetings as well as board members participating remotely versus in person.

“There is no need to suspend BEDH. If the Board is successful at prohibiting the public from attending the meeting, there won’t be anyone to speak, will there?” Philpott wrote in an email to board members.

“Please consider how very serious it is to attempt to silence the public,” Philpott continued. “You might benefit by re-reading the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which refers to abridging the freedom of speech.”

The South Carolina School Board Association (SCSBA) also recommend that school districts not accept any FOIA requests submitted during the coronavirus crisis and de-prioritize requests filed prior to Gov. Henry McMaster’s state of emergency declaration.

Bender disputed the legality of those suggestions.

 “The law establishes deadlines and I don’t think the governor or anybody else can suspend the law,” Bender said. “The school board association has never thought anything should be public. They are run by superintendents whose goal is to keep all unfavorable news about schools out of the press.”