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Cotham: New NC Senate bill shields salaries of for-profit charter school staff

Conflict over disclosure of charter-school salaries flared anew Thursday as House Democrats said a Senate-approved bill shields for-profit management companies from revealing who they hire and how much they pay.

In a Thursday evening news conference, Rep. Tricia Cotham, D-Mecklenburg, led the call for the public and Gov. Pat McCrory to fight a move that she says blocks accountability and transparency at charter schools, which are run by nonprofit boards and funded with public money.

“It’s a simple principle: The public should know where public money is going,” she said.

At issue is a much-revised bill introduced in May after the Observer requested charter school salaries and questions arose about what those schools are required to release. A new version was quietly brought before the Senate Thursday and approved unanimously.

That version says that “charter school personnel records for those employees directly employed by the board of directors for the charter school” are subject to the same disclosure requirements and privacy protections as employees of school districts and other public bodies.

Cotham, the only Democrat on an eight-member committee created to reconcile conflicting bills previously approved by the House and Senate, says a staff lawyer told her that wording excludes employees hired by management companies, such as Charter Schools USA and National Heritage Academies. She refused to sign the committee report and worked to delay a House vote – hoping, she said, that bipartisan opposition will emerge if colleagues understand the bill.

Rep. Charles Jeter, R-Mecklenburg, said Thursday night that’s not how the revised version was explained to him. He said he’s glad a vote was delayed until Friday so the issue can be clarified.

Cotham, a former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools administrator who is vice chair of the House Education Committee, said the Senate-approved version would let for-profit companies collect millions in tax dollars without scrutiny. “That’s the goal, so you, members of the press and the community, can’t see who is hired and what they’re making,” she said at a 6 p.m. news conference.

Neither Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger nor Senate Education Committee Chairman Jerry Tillman could be reached for comment Thursday evening. Cotham said Tillman, who co-chaired the committee that created the new version, pushed for the wording that would shield management companies.

In June, the Senate Education Committee approved a version of the bill that requires disclosure for all charter school employees. Tillman said at the time that “transparency trumps all.”

The House is scheduled to take up the new version of the charter bill after it convenes at 10 a.m. Friday. Rep. Larry Hall of Durham, leader of the House Democrats, said at the news conference he believes “there are folks out there who will try to cut off debate and discussion.”

Charter-school spending and enrollment has surged in the past couple of years, since the state lifted a 100-school cap in 2011. Tension has also risen over the proper balance between expanding family options and monitoring quality.

Members of the N.C. Charter School Advisory Board have traded sharp words over the role of for-profit management companies. Alan Hawkes, a Senate appointee who serves on the board of two Guilford County charter schools run by National Heritage Academies, said lawmakers want a rapid expansion of charters run by such chains.

Cheryl Turner, a House appointee who runs an independent charter school in Charlotte, said that kind of expansion would undermine quality and erode support for charter schools.

Another Senate appointee to the advisory board, Baker Mitchell, runs the for-profit Roger Bacon Academy charter company, which has schools in Eastern North Carolina. His company has been fighting salary requests from news media in the Wilmington area.

Adding to the complexities of the charter scene: Phil Berger Jr., son of the Senate’s president pro tem, has been awarded a charter to open Providence Charter High in Rockingham County. That school, scheduled to open this year but delayed a year, would not be run by a management company, according to the application.

The path of this year’s charter bill, introduced by Tillman in May, has been twisted. The General Assembly website shows 44 actions since, including amendments, committee revisions, three votes in the House and four in the Senate. The bill addresses several other issues related to charters, as well as public disclosure of personnel information.

Before the third House vote, Jeter introduced an amendment that would have blocked the release of names of all charter school employees. The House approved that amendment, but Jeter said later it was broader than his intent and withdrew his support.

McCrory said recently that he would “veto any attempt to hide the names of charter school employees from the public record.”

As debate over disclosure has continued, all 22 charter schools the Observer requested salaries from eventually provided the information, including some that are run by management companies.

The Observer analyzed that data to show that neither teachers nor administrators in Charlotte-area charter schools are earning unusually high salaries. Charter schools had fewer highly paid teachers than CMS.

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