State Rep. Scott Stone says someone in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is improperly using public resources to engage in politics.
So he has filed a public records request – including emails and text messages to and from all school principals – to figure out who leaked one of his emails to an advocacy group and who’s blocking his access to principals.
Stone, a Mecklenburg Republican, said he’s not trying to “throw a principal under the bus,” but to find out what their superiors are up to. “I’m curious to see if the principals are being told inaccurate information,” he said.
CMS officials say Stone’s requests are forcing them to search through correspondence for more than 200 people, including principals of 176 schools, school board members and other CMS staff. All documents will likely be reviewed to remove any confidential information, such as references to individual students or personnel matters.
CMS sent Stone two large files of documents on Friday, but Stone initially said he had gotten nothing. After the Observer inquired Tuesday, he checked and discovered that the files had been “sequestered” by the state mail system because of the size of the files. CMS said those files are only a first installment, with staff continuing to search and review correspondence.
“I don’t understand what he’s trying to do, other than stir the pot,” said the board’s vice chair, Rhonda Cheek. “I feel that it’s not a productive use of taxpayers’ money and staff time.”
Stone’s request provides an unusual twist during Sunshine Week, an annual event in which journalists and advocates highlight the importance of public access to public records. North Carolina law requires public bodies to provide documents, including employees’ correspondence related to public business, “as promptly as possible.”
And it illustrates ongoing tension between the Republican-dominated state legislature, which provides about 60 percent of the CMS operating budget, and the majority-Democrat school board.
Frayda Bluestein, a UNC School of Government professor who specializes in open government, says it’s not uncommon for public records requests to become part of the political process, especially during campaign season. Candidates for office often request documents related to controversial issues. “It’s just sort of classical political digging things up,” she said Tuesday.
State lawmakers are up for election this year, and Stone is running for re-election.
The trouble between CMS and Stone, who has children in CMS schools, stems from a clash involving state-mandated limits on K-3 class sizes. In December the state PTA urged parents to lobby against the limits, which PTA leaders said would force schools to eliminate art, music and PE classes in order to hire more classroom teachers and free additional rooms. Officials in Wake County, CMS and most other school districts also opposed the mandate, which was eventually delayed.
In early January, a staff member at Polo Ridge Elementary School in Stone’s south Charlotte district forwarded an email urging parents to contact Stone opposing the class-size cap. When Stone, a former Polo Ridge parent, tried to respond to the same email list he was blocked, he says. But an article critiquing Stone’s response quickly appeared in The Progressive Pulse, an online publication of N.C. Policy Watch, headlined “Legislator sends inaccuracy-riddled email to Charlotte school parents.” The article was written by Kris Nordstrom, who works for the N.C. Justice Center, the parent organization to Policy Watch.
Later in January Stone and state Sen. Dan Bishop tried to line up meetings with principals at Polo Ridge and other nearby schools. They got an email from Charles Jeter, the CMS government relations coordinator, saying they should talk with central office staff instead.
Stone’s first public record request, filed Feb. 16, sought email, text messages and any other communication related to the Polo Ridge correspondence and the Progressive Pulse article. He asked for relevant communication from board members and three specific staff members, as well as communication between any CMS employee and anyone associated with Policy Watch, the Justice Center or the state Democratic Party.
He noted that his response to the Polo Ridge email blast was “deliberately targeted, singled out and filtered by CMS officials” while being promptly sent to NC Policy Watch, “which is also a liberal blog closely aligned with the Democratic Party.”
“Given the fact that the state of North Carolina provides nearly two-thirds of CMS’ funding ... and because the education of our children must be a top priority, the legislators from Mecklenburg County should be your strongest allies and advocates,” Stone wrote in that request, which was address to CMS General Counsel George Battle III. “Unfortunately, recent actions by CMS staff appear as if some of your colleagues are attempting to make us your adversaries.”
Rob Schofield, director of Policy Watch, says the group is a progressive news and commentary publication that is not aligned with any party. He said Nordstrom, the author of the article, is an opinion writer and advocate.
On Feb. 22, Stone sent a second public record request, seeking records related to the ban on direct communication with principals.
“Since Jeter was speaking officially on behalf of CMS, we are interested to learn who within CMS was responsible for establishing this policy, especially since that policy was not promulgated through a public and open process,” Stone wrote.
Stone asked for emails and texts from Jeter, school board members and all school principals “related to state education policy or any current legislation or state funding; meetings, communications, or interactions with state legislators or other elected officials; and/or information related to class size policy or the communication of class size requirements.”
At a Feb. 12 school board retreat, CMS officials discussed tightening and clarifying the board’s policy on how other elected officials can interact with schools. The board has not taken any action yet.
Stone said Monday that the only response he has gotten from CMS so far is a staff member’s reply that the district is “in the process of obtaining the various communications that may be relevant to the two requests.”