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Richland One to re-examine ban on broadcasting public comments made during meetings

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New Richland One Superintendent Faces Parents, Teachers at Forum (2020_1-31 copy)

Richland 1 Superintendent Craig Witherspoon. Photo by Chris Trainor

COLUMBIA — Richland County School District One officials are considering a long-time policy change to not broadcasting a public comment period during meetings, an about face brought on by a Post and Courier report published in December.

“I know we’ve done a lot of things really right in the past, we’ve also done wrong things. I’m looking at the present and future, and we need to be on solid footing when it comes to conducting meetings where board members might be involved,” commissioner Beatrice King said Tuesday.

For years, the 24,000-student district — South Carolina’s ninth largest — has excised from its recorded and live-streamed meetings the public participation period, despite being part of the open session.

The Post and Courier reported on the issue last month, where members of the South Carolina Press Association said such a practice runs afoul of the state’s public records law.

While no law exists requiring public bodies to allow for comment, cutting them from an open meeting is a problem.

“It’s the district breaking the law and hurting their public image,” state Press Association President Bill Rogers said in December. “That’s an important part of the meeting that should be open. These are tough times, but the public has a right to hear these meetings in their entirety.”

Richland One’s stance deviates from other major capital region school districts, including Richland Two and Lexington-Richland 5, where public comments are aired as part of their broadcasts. Both have also been slammed by residents in recent weeks over COVID-19 reentry policies in footage carried live.

There was no public comment received for Monday’s meeting, but Superintendent Craig Witherspoon said officials will re-examine their position ahead of future ones.

"That is something that district for many, many years the district has not done. We have reached out to some other districts as well, and that's something the chair and I will continue to talk about,” Witherspoon said. “We are prepared now with the process we have in place to move that forward.”

Richland One officials temporarily suspended the inclusion of public comment as part of their meetings beginning in March, when they stared being conducted virtually, but added the portion back in October. That followed a recommendation by the state association of school boards to limit public participation so long as social distancing guidelines are in place.

Follow Adam Benson on Twitter @AdamNewshound12.

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