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Editorials represent the institutional view of the newspaper. They are written and edited by the editorial staff, which operates separately from the news department. Editorial writers are not involved in newsroom operations.

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Editorial: All SC school board meetings online? Absolutely. But don't stop there.

CharlestonSchoolBoardLivestream

The Charleston County School District has been livestreaming school board meetings since long before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The S.C. Legislature could require all districts to do the same. Screenshot

You can spend a lot of money buying expensive video and audio equipment and wiring a space and hiring special audio-visual professionals to livestream meetings. Or you can do it for practically nothing.

For a couple of hundred dollars, you can get a tripod to mount your phone on and an audio adapter that fits the output of a public address system. If the building doesn’t have internet access, you can run the livestream off the hot spot on your phone. And pretty much anyone who knows how to operate a cellphone can stream the whole thing to a Facebook page for free — as hundreds of churches across our state discovered when COVID-19 suddenly forced them to take their worship services online.

Livestream on the cheap might not get you the professional quality of C-SPAN, or even of S.C. ETV’s livestreams of the Legislature, but it’ll be more than adequate to let voters keep up with what their government is doing.

It’s so easy and cheap, in fact, that the main difference between governments that allow voters to watch their meetings online in real time or later at their convenience and those that don’t is the willingness to do so.

The S.C. Senate has wisely adopted a plan to eliminate that difference, at least when it comes to school boards. Last week, senators voted 39-0 to require all school boards to livestream their full meetings, beginning next year.

Although we still have grave concerns about governing boards conducting their meetings remotely, because of the limitations this inherently places on interactions between board members and between members of the board and members of the public who choose to participate in person, there are no such problems with allowing remote public viewing.

Under S.945, districts with limited or no broadband access could apply for an extra year to begin livestreaming; the number shouldn't be large, as the S.C. Association of School Boards reports that two-thirds of districts already livestream meetings. A district that experiences technical problems during the livestream and isn’t able to restore it in real time would have up to 48 hours to post a complete video online.

The legislation requires the state Education Department to develop best practices for the livestreams. That will be mostly a how-to guide, to help officials who just don’t have any idea how to proceed, but it also would include escalating penalties the agency could impose for any districts that refuse to comply.

It’s a modest but positive step in the right direction, and one we hope the House will at least adopt, and possibly expand.

H.945 doesn’t cover committee or subcommittee meetings or work sessions, even though on many school boards, the important discussions and debate occur in committee, including a committee of the whole that is made up of all the members of the board. It’s hard to understand why those committee meetings would be exempt. That’s sort of like the Freedom of Information Act saying full school board meetings have to be open to the public but committee meetings don’t.

Beyond that, we’d like to see the provisions applied to city and county councils, and to state governing boards — including the Legislature itself.

Many of these governments already stream their meetings, and many more started doing so early in the pandemic, when they temporarily switched to remote meetings and realized that giving the public access to those meetings not only was required by law but also was so easy to do. We’ve been encouraged that so many continued offering online access after they returned to in-person meetings, but the fact is that it’s by choice, not by law. There’s nothing in S.C. law to stop them from suddenly stopping.

And while longtime livestreamers consistently record those whole-body meetings that S.945 would require of school boards, the chance of seeing a committee or subcommittee meeting is much more hit and miss. Even in the Legislature, you can never be sure you’ll be able to watch a meeting from home — or later. Several meeting rooms at the Statehouse lack the sophisticated equipment normally used to livestream, so the only way to see meetings scheduled in those rooms is to attend in person, and there's no option at all for going back later and checking to see what was said and done.

There's always a danger that expanding a good bill to include related topics will generate opposition that kills that original bill, particularly this late in the legislative session, and we'd rather get S.945 passed as written than not. But we don't know how much we can expand it until we try. The House should at least give it a try, and pull back if that doesn't work. With today's technology, there's simply no good excuse for everybody to have to attend meetings in person in order to find out what their government is doing.

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