Analysis: School board transparency is great, but lawmakers should lead by example
The Senate last week unanimously passed a bill pushing South Carolina’s school boards to livestream their meetings. Despite some issues in its execution, this is a much-needed policy – one that is central to the Policy Council’s goal of empowering citizens through transparency in government. At the same time, however, the proposal highlights a double standard by lawmakers who often fail to broadcast important meetings at the Statehouse.
Improving Local transparency
S.945 would require the governing boards of public schools, including charter and special schools, to make “reasonable and necessary efforts” to ensure that meetings are 1) available via livestream, and 2) open and accessible to the public. Periods during executive session would be exempt from this policy.
Note that the bill does not explicitly require meetings to be streamed; it only tells school boards to make a “reasonable and necessary” effort at doing so. It does direct the State Board of Education to develop specific livestreaming policies, part of which could be interpreted as requirement for streaming, but the language is not entirely clear. To avoid any confusion, the bill should state plainly that all school board meetings must be livestreamed.
According to the bill, even if a school board is unable to livestream its meeting, it must post the audio/video recording to its website within two days. A school board would be prohibited from adjusting its own streaming policy during a meeting that is not streamed. Note that these are clear requirements, unlike the section above.
Another potential issue is the timeframe. The policies in the bill must be implemented by July 2023; however, a district can request a twelve-month extension before needing to comply with the state education board’s streaming guidelines if it can show evidence of internet problems, meaning it could be two years before some school boards start streaming their meetings. The bill’s deadline is already generous, and livestreaming is not complicated. If districts need extra time, a few more months should be plenty.
Once these issues are addressed, S.945 will be a powerful tool for parents and taxpayers to stay engaged with their school board without having to physically attend meetings, and one that will bring much-needed transparency to the local education system.
Rules for thee, but not for me
When looking at this proposal, it’s impossible to ignore that important legislative meetings at the Statehouse go unstreamed almost every week. It’s clear that lawmakers understand the value of transparency, so why aren’t they leading by example?
We have been tracking the number of budget meetings that are streamed each week during session, and the results are troubling. Only about half of the budget subcommittee meetings held between January and March were streamed. The Senate’s streaming record has been notably worse than that of the House. In fact, we found multiple consecutive weeks during which no Senate budget subcommittee hearings were streamed.
Unfortunately, the lack of legislative transparency extends beyond the budget. Lawmakers in recent weeks haven’t been streaming some meetings to discuss regular bills, either. Ironically, the subcommittee hearing for this very bill was not streamed. Other bills that were recently debated in unstreamed meetings include a proposal offering a property tax exemption, and another to change the definition of fees that can be imposed by cities and counties.
A common reason given by lawmakers or their staff about the lack of streaming is that not all the committee rooms at the Statehouse have the necessary equipment. If this is true, next year’s proposed budget, which totals almost $39 billion (including a projected $5 billion revenue surplus), should not pass without designating funds for this purpose.
The merits of transparency are obvious. The bill itself states that streaming would “increas[e] public engagement in district business” and “mak[e] the decision-making process more visible and accessible to the community …”. No doubt, these arguments are true for virtually all government business, including meetings at the Statehouse.
To reiterate, S.945 is a much-needed policy, but one that needs minor adjustments before reaching the governor’s desk. We would encourage lawmakers to enforce this level of transparency for all areas of state and local government.