NC House approves charter bill after debate on salary disclosure, gay students

The N.C. House approved a charter school bill 62-36 Friday after partisan debate over whether it exposes gay students to discrimination and provides appropriate disclosure of salaries paid with public money.

Republican supporters and Democratic critics agree that the bill, which passed the Senate unanimously Thursday, excludes administrators hired by for-profit charter management companies from public disclosure of names and pay. All charter school teacher salaries would be public.

Charter schools are run by nonprofit boards that get state approval to receive public money. Some of those boards contract with a management company, such as Charter Schools USA or National Heritage Academies, while other boards run their own schools.

Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, compared the management companies to technology companies contracted by a school district to upgrade the computer system. In both cases, he said, the contract is public record but salaries for the private company’s employees are not.

“We heard you loud and clear: You want the charter schools held to the same standard as traditional public schools,” Lewis said. “That’s what this bill does.”

Rep. Tricia Cotham, D-Mecklenburg, said the exemption for employees hired by management companies opens the door to inappropriate hiring and overpayment of administrators.

Cotham, a former administrator in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, said she could create a charter school and “I could hire my friends and family – maybe even some of you.”

“If even one is doing it with taxpayer money, shouldn’t that be a concern?” she said. “If the money flows, then we should know where it goes.”

The debate comes at a time of rapid expansion for the state’s charter schools, especially in the Charlotte area. Salary disclosure and the role of for-profit companies have been hotly debated among lawmakers and educators.

Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who had vowed to veto “any attempt to hide the names of charter school employees from the public record,” said Friday he still has concerns but won’t decide on a veto until lawyers review the final version, which only became public on Thursday.

“I still share my previous concerns with transparency for charter schools, not just for teachers, but for board members and all employees,” McCrory said in a statement Friday afternoon. “Lawyers are currently reviewing the interpretations of this new law and I won’t take action on the legislation until we have a clear interpretation on transparency.”

Protection for students?

Lewis and Rep. Jon Hardister, R-Guilford, said the final version of the much-revised bill also provides lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered students the same protections afforded to other public school students under state law.

But some Democrats said the bill exposes those students to discrimination because it removed language in the version approved by the House in June. The June version said charter schools “shall not discriminate against any student with respect to any category protected under the United States Constitution or under federal law applicable to the states.”

Rep. Marcus Brandon, D-Guilford, said state law spells out other protected categories, such as race and religion, but says nothing about sexual orientation. He raised the possibility that a charter school could exclude or discriminate on that basis.

“We have protection for every child except the LGBT child,” he said. “Don’t fool yourself. That stuff is not in this bill.”

Charter schools are required to accept all students, using an admission lottery if there are more applicants than spots. The new bill allows single-gender charter schools, but Lewis said there’s nothing that allows for excluding LGBT students.

“Discrimination against anyone for any reason is wrong,” Lewis said. “It’s already forbidden by state law.”

Disclosing pay

Controversy over public disclosure of charter school employee salaries arose in March, when the Observer requested the same payroll information from 22 area charter schools that it has long published for employees of CMS and other public bodies.

All eventually provided that information, including schools managed by Charter Schools USA and National Heritage Academies. The strongest resistance came from two independently-run schools, Sugar Creek and Lincoln charter schools, which were represented by former Charlotte mayor and charter-school pioneer Richard Vinroot.

The schools provided full information on top administrators but withheld the names of teachers and other lower-ranking employees. Vinroot and school leaders argued that because charters have more flexibility in setting teacher salaries, disclosure would undermine faculty morale.

“I don’t want Sally to know what Jimmy got paid,” Vinroot said in April. “It would create disruption within our school.”

Both schools agreed to provide the names after the academic year ended. Cheryl Turner, director of Sugar Creek and a member of the N.C. Charter School Advisory Board, said she wanted to avoid the disruption during testing season. “Truthfully, I always felt like we were going to have to disclose the names,” she said.

Meanwhile, another member of the advisory board has also been involved in salary-disclosure controversy. Baker Mitchell, who runs the for-profit Roger Bacon Academy charter company in Eastern North Carolina, has been fighting salary requests from news media in the Wilmington area.

Disclosure requirements in the charter bill went through several variations. The Senate approved a version that would have held charter schools to the same disclosure requirements as other public schools, while the House approved an amendment that would have blocked disclosure of charter school employees’ names.

The compromise version approved by both bodies specifies that the public disclosure requirements apply to “those employees directly employed by the board of directors of the charter school.”

A written explanation from legislative staff attorney Kara McCraw says the attorney general has ruled teachers must be directly employed by charter boards but management companies can be hired to provide other services.

“If a board of directors elected to contract with (a management company) to provide administration for the school, the personnel records of individuals employed by the (company) to provide that service would not be required to be disclosed in the same manner as employees of local boards of education,” McCraw wrote.

Who’s on the board?

Also this week, lawmakers released a 55-page “technical and other corrections” bill that covers a range of topics. One sentence in that bill would block the state Board of Education from restricting who can serve on charter boards.

According to an article in The Progressive Pulse, an online journal created by the anti-poverty N.C. Justice Center, that change stems from a conflict between Mitchell, the charter school advisory board member, and the state board. The article says the state board told Mitchell that he and other Roger Bacon staff can’t serve as voting members on the boards of the schools that the company runs.

The House approved the bill 61-35 Friday. Rep. Susi Hamilton, D-Wilmington, tried to amend it so the state could restrict membership on the boards governing virtual charter schools, which provide online education. The amendment passed 61-30, but then was reconsidered and failed 34-62.

The bill now goes to the Senate.

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