Some charter school leaders resist salary disclosure

Leaders of four Charlotte-area charter schools say they won’t provide the same salary information that other public schools do, even though state education officials say the law requires it.

Instead, Pine Lake Prep, Sugar Creek Charter, Lincoln Charter and Carolina International schools told the Observer they will withhold names of some or all employees in responding to a public records request for salaries.

Richard Vinroot, a charter school pioneer and former Charlotte mayor who is working with Sugar Creek and Lincoln charter schools, said he encouraged those schools to delete names of all but the highest-paid employees. He said that’s because charter schools, which are not bound by state teacher salary schedules, link pay to performance.

“I don’t want Sally to know what Jimmy got paid,” said Vinroot, who represents Lincoln and is a board member at Sugar Creek. “It would create disruption within our school.”

N.C. public records law requires that public bodies disclose names, salaries and positions of employees, even in cases where most of the personnel file is deemed confidential. Charter schools are run by independent nonprofit boards that are authorized by the state to receive state, local and federal money. To receive a charter, the governing boards must agree to abide by public records and open meetings laws.

“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. She said that when her staff said in March that charter schools were exempt from disclosure, “our attorneys misunderstood the question.”

Atkinson said she and N.C. Board of Education Chairman William Cobey, who agreed that salary disclosure is required, plan to send a letter to all N.C. charter schools next week clarifying the obligation to follow the law.

Salaries are public record

The Observer has requested and published salaries for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, city, county and state employees for years, using the information to analyze public spending and making the data accessible to the public online. Last year’s CMS listing included more than 1,000 teachers and other employees who received performance-based bonuses, which the district discloses by name.

This spring, with charter school enrollment and spending on the rise, the Observer also requested salaries from 21 area charter schools that educate more than 10,000 Mecklenburg County students. Across North Carolina, 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 will open in August, 11 of them in or near Mecklenburg County.

As of Friday, Aristotle Prep, Charlotte Secondary, Community School of Davidson, Mountain Island and Socrates Academy had provided full salary information.

Sugar Creek Charter sent a list of 103 employees, with only the top three identified by name. Lincoln Charter School sent a list of 157 with the four highest-paid identified by name.

On Friday Pine Lake Prep sent a list of 133 employees identified only by broad titles, such as “teacher,” “office” or “administrator.” The attached note from Head of Schools Chris Terrill did not explain the decision not to provide all the information requested, instead touting the school’s “high level of fiscal responsibility and a stewardship of public tax dollars.”

“Pine Lake is a model for openness and transparency,” Terrill said, citing the board’s compliance with the open meetings law. He did not immediately respond to a follow-up query requesting names.

Also Friday, an attorney representing Carolina International School notified the Observer that the board had decided to provide a list without names “within the next few weeks.” In March, when the Observer sent the request, board chair Scott Elliott responded that “I am actually glad to see someone compiling the info.”

‘Range of views’

David Hostetler, the attorney for Carolina International, said Friday there is “a wide range of views” about whether charter schools are subject to public records law.

“If charter schools are subject to the law, it is not clear to what extent,” Hostetler said in an email. “Withholding specific names in light of the letter of the law’s ambiguity and protect(ing) individual privacy interests of school teachers and staff – a ‘middle ground’ response – is legally and reasonably justifiable in my opinion.”

Hostetler is also legal counsel for the N.C. Public Charter Schools Association, a Charlotte-based group headed by former state Sen. Eddie Goodall of Union County. Within hours of the Observer’s request for salaries, the association emailed members and supporters offering legal assistance in resisting disclosure.

Baker Mitchell, a Wilmington charter school operator who serves on the N.C. Charter School Advisory Board, has also argued publicly against disclosure. Until this week, when a new chair was named, Mitchell led the board of the Raleigh-based N.C. Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

In blogs and online comments, Mitchell has argued that test scores and tax forms filed by nonprofit corporations provide all the information taxpayers need to judge how their money is spent. Mitchell, who runs the Roger Bacon Academy charter management company, compared charter schools to nonprofit companies that receive public grants and private vendors that get contracts from school districts, saying those entities aren’t required to disclose salaries.

The N.C. Attorney General’s Office said this week that Roy Cooper will provide a written opinion on charter school salary disclosure if “any government official” requests one. The Observer has asked Atkinson and Cobey to request such an opinion, which would then be public record.