North Carolina’s top charter official warned schools Thursday that they could lose their charters, which authorize them to get public money, if they refuse to comply with public records requests for salaries.
The letter from charter Director Joel Medley came in response to the Observer’s effort to get salaries from 21 Charlotte-area charter schools, which are independent public schools run by nonprofit boards. The letter reminds them that each board signed an agreement to follow the N.C. Public Records Law.
“You must comply with all conditions contained in the Charter Agreement or be subject to revocation of your charter,” the letter says. “Regardless of news reports stating that the agency is ‘now’ saying that the salaries of charter school employees are public record, this has always been a requirement of the Charter Agreement.
“Furthermore,” the letter continues, “it has always been the position of the State Board of Education and the Department of Public Instruction that charter schools must comply with the Public Records Act. Failure to comply with the Public Records Act may jeopardize the future of your signed Charter Agreement and result in litigation by the entity requesting the public records.”
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The Observer, which has long published salaries from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and other public bodies, requested the charter school salaries in March. So far eight schools have provided all the information requested, and four have provided salaries but withheld some or all employee names. Eight have not responded or say they are still reviewing the request.
One, Lake Norman Charter, declined to provide any information, citing “statutory gray area with regards to how the open records law applies to charter schools. Once there is clarification on the topic, the board will revisit the matter,” board Chairman Bill Farber wrote.
The confusion arose when the Observer notified Medley and Department of Public Instruction spokeswoman Vanessa Jeter that the salary request was coming and they might get questions from local charter schools. The Office of Charter Schools is part of DPI.
“Charter staff are not employed by a public school board but by a private non-profit 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,” Jeter replied, saying she had consulted with DPI legal staff. “I don’t think the charter law or public records law speaks to charter salary information.”
Part of the law, which predates the creation of charter schools in North Carolina, says that personnel files for employees of school boards, the state, cities and counties are confidential, but adds that some information, including names, salaries and positions, must be disclosed. Jeter initially said because there was nothing specific to employees of nonprofit charter boards, it was up to those boards to decide what information to release.
State Superintendent June Atkinson, who oversees DPI, later said that state attorneys had misunderstood the question and the salaries must be released. Bill Cobey, chairman of the N.C. Board of Education, agreed. The Board of Education has the final say on which charter boards are allowed to operate public schools.