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,” N.C. 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 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 of them in or near Mecklenburg County.
So far nine of the schools contacted by the Observer have provided the information or say they are preparing it.
Leaders of other schools say mixed signals from the state created confusion. In March, DPI spokeswoman Vanessa Jeter told the Observer that 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.
The Lake Norman Charter School board declined to release salaries because members “felt that there is too much statutory gray area,” Chairman Bill Farber replied. “Once there is clarification on the topic, the board will revisit the matter.”
Scott Elliott, chairman of the Carolina International School board, initially responded to the Observer’s request by saying he was “glad to see someone compiling the info.” He referred the Observer’s request to lawyer David Hostetler, who is still reviewing it.
“As a general policy matter, I personally believe that the law should be the same for charters as for traditional schools when taxpayer funding is involved,” Hostetler replied. “However without legal clarity, Charter schools also have to be careful not to disclose information that employees might contend is confidential, legally.”
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.” After a follow-up email from the Observer, copied to Atkinson and Cobey, Jeter said lawyers had discussed the matter again and concluded that disclosure isn’t required, leaving the decision up to individual charter boards.
Cohen, the General Assembly lawyer, said DPI had interpreted the law wrong. He, along with lawyers for the N.C. Press Association and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, said the public records law provides no personnel exemptions for charter school employees.
Within hours of the Observer making salary requests to area charter schools, Eddie Goodall, executive director of the Charlotte-based N.C. Public Charter Schools Association, emailed members and supporters offering legal assistance in resisting disclosure.
“The decision to divulge any of that is a board matter but I can say that the majority of schools I spoke with said they would not disclose wages but would address the issue with counsel if necessary,” wrote Goodall, a former state senator from Union County.
Community School of Davidson, Socrates Academy, Charlotte Secondary School and Aristotle Preparatory School have provided salaries. The Observer plans to post charter salaries, along with those from CMS and other public bodies, later this month.
Joy Warner, executive director of the Community School of Davidson, said her payroll shows that wages are “abysmally low.”
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 – Sugar Creek and Lincoln – would release the salaries but withhold the names of all but the highest-paid staff.
Langtree and Cabarrus charter schools, both run by the for-profit Charter Schools USA, did not respond to the Observer’s initial request for salaries.
A follow-up with the public relations firm that represents the chain brought no details.
“From what I understand salaries for charter school employees are not public record. I’ll let you know if that is correct,” Colleen Reynolds, president of the Florida-based Edge Communications, emailed last week.
Change of course
Some local legislators said they were dismayed to hear state officials contend that charter schools are exempt from part of the public records law.
State Rep. Charles Jeter, R-Mecklenburg, has children at Pine Lake Preparatory charter school. He said it’s a public school that is subject to public disclosure: “You can’t pick and choose when it’s convenient. If they want to play in that arena, they need to play by public law.”
State Sen. Jeff Tarte, R-Mecklenburg, said he and others applied public pressure to get the state to do what he considers “common sense.”
“When any organization that receives state funds refuses to comply with state laws, their state funding should be withheld,” Tarte wrote in a newsletter. “Paraphrasing Thoreau, civil disobedience has consequences.”
Atkinson and Cobey did not respond to requests for comment when the Observer asked about charter salaries in March. However, when contacted for a follow-up this month they said disclosure is required. Atkinson blamed “an internal miscommunication” for the previous statement.
On Sunday, after hearing from Atkinson and Cobey, Vanessa Jeter emailed a follow-up statement to the Observer: “It would be helpful if the charter law itself specifically listed what is public record regarding charter school employees, but the charter document binds charter schools to following the public record law at this time. This would include salaries of charter school employees.”