NC education officials: Charter schools must disclose salaries

ahelms@charlotteobserver.comApril 20, 2014 

  • Who’s in charge?

    • The N.C. General Assembly makes education law and provides most of the money for public education.

    • The N.C. Board of Education is responsible for education policy. The board is made up of the lieutenant governor, the state treasurer and 11 members appointed by the governor and confirmed by the legislature. William Cobey, the chairman, is a former Republican congressman who worked in Gov. James Martin’s administration and chairs the board of a private Christian school.

    • The state superintendent is elected to run the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, which is responsible for carrying out education policy. Atkinson, a Democrat and former DPI consultant and director, is in her third four-year term.

North Carolina’s top education officials now say charter schools must publicly reveal salaries, reversing a March announcement that the independent public schools are exempt from that requirement.

“Public charter schools should disclose how they spend all tax dollars, including salaries paid,” State Board of Education Chairman William Cobey said in a recent email.

“Charter schools are set up and organized as public schools. Therefore I believe salaries are to be open to the public for review,” state Superintendent June Atkinson said Monday.

Atkinson said that when the N.C. Department of Public Instruction said in March that charter salaries are not subject to public disclosure, “our attorneys misunderstood the question.”

As part of its annual reporting on public pay, The Charlotte Observer has requested salaries from 21 Charlotte-area charter schools, which receive millions of dollars in state, local and federal money and are governed by nonprofit boards.

The request was placed as enrollment and investment in charter schools are booming, especially in the Charlotte region. This year, the state is spending $304.5 million for 127 charter schools that serve about 58,700 students, with counties required to kick in millions more. Twenty-six more charter schools will open in August, 11 in or near Mecklenburg County and six in the Triangle.

So far nine of the schools contacted by the Observer have provided the information or say they are preparing it.

Mixed signals

Leaders of other schools say mixed signals from the state created confusion.

In March, DPI spokeswoman Vanessa Jeter said lawyers from her department and the state Attorney General’s Office had concluded that “charter staff are not employed by a public school board but by a private nonprofit board and, as a result, their salaries are not subject to public records law the way public school board employees’ or state employees’ salaries are.”

Meanwhile Gerry Cohen, special counsel to the N.C. General Assembly, said that not only are charter schools required to disclose salaries but they have less personnel privacy than other public schools.

Atkinson said she and Cobey plan to send a letter to all North Carolina charter schools, probably next week, stating their obligation to disclose salaries.

“If clarification is needed, we will take the appropriate action, including requesting a statute change or addition,” Cobey said.

Public or private?

The confusion stems from the personnel privacy section of the N.C. Public Records Law. In 1987, before North Carolina had charter schools, lawmakers passed the personnel privacy act for employees of local school boards. (There are similar provisions for employees of the state, cities and counties.) The act defines as confidential many items in personnel files, including applications and performance evaluations. It also specifies 22 personnel items that remain open to the public, including names, positions and salaries.

The state created charter schools in 1996, defining them as public schools operated by “a private nonprofit corporation.” Private boards normally wouldn’t be subject to the same type of scrutiny as public bodies. But as a condition of receiving public education money, charter boards must agree to comply with open meetings and public records laws.

Until 2011, North Carolina allowed only 100 charter schools. Once the cap was lifted, spending, enrollment and scrutiny grew.

Critics of charter schools often say they divert money from public education. Charter supporters counter that charter schools are a form of public education, designed to provide a tuition-free option that incorporates some of the freedom and innovation of private schools.

The state Office of Charter Schools, which is part of DPI, oversees the creation of new charters and monitors existing ones. The N.C. Board of Education has final authority over the schools.

When the Observer emailed Jeter and charter school director Joel Medley in March to say they might get queries from Charlotte-area schools about the Observer’s salary requests, Jeter responded that the DPI legal staff “see a difference between charters and ordinary public schools.”

Cohen, the General Assembly lawyer, said DPI had interpreted the law wrong.

Richard Vinroot, a lawyer, longtime charter supporter and former Charlotte mayor, said he believes the law is intended to require disclosure.

But given the contradictory message from DPI, he said two charter schools he works with would release the salaries but withhold the names of all but the highest-paid staff.

Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter: @anndosshelms

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