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By Ann Doss Helms
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The N.C. House approved legislation Thursday that would block charter school employees’ names from being disclosed with their pay, acting on an amendment introduced by Rep. Charles Jeter, R-Huntersville.
The revised bill now goes back to the Senate, which earlier approved a version that requires disclosure of names, salaries and all other personnel information that traditional public schools must reveal.
Jeter and Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, say the amendment is designed to block public reporting of charter school salaries by name, which Lewis said creates “a hostile work environment.”
The amendment, introduced as a broader charter school bill, passed the House on a 65-48 vote in its final reading. It preserves the part of the initial bill that says charter schools must disclose positions, salaries, promotions, demotions, disciplinary actions and other specific personnel data, but says that employee names “shall not be open to inspection.”
‘A horrible amendment’
Amanda Martin, lawyer for the N.C. Press Association, called it “a horrible amendment.”
A spokeswoman for Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said he wasn’t available for comment Thursday.
The issue arose in March when the Observer requested names and salaries from 22 charter schools. The Observer has been publishing that information from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, surrounding districts and other public bodies for years.
At the time Jeter, whose children attend Pine Lake Preparatory charter school in Mooresville, told the Observer charter schools are subject to public disclosure.
“You can’t pick and choose when it’s convenient,” he said. “If they want to play in that arena, they need to play by public law.”
Jeter said Thursday that after talking to “some of my colleagues and others,” he decided that the names should be protected because charter schools can use merit-based pay, rather than the state salary schedule, and because employees report to a private nonprofit board.
“I actually think we should do it for traditional schools, too,” Jeter said.
Lewis, who sponsored the bill, echoed Jeter’s argument for shielding charter employees’ names.
“You create a very hostile environment when you have to release names and salaries for every teacher,” he said. “…What I’m trying to prohibit is the blanket publication of the names.”
The House version of the charter bill also broadly bans discrimination against charter school applicants based on their sexual orientation or other federally and constitutionally protected classes.
Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake, had questioned an amendment that would have prohibited schools from turning away applicants because of their sexual orientation. Stam said the bill needed to define sexual orientation because he argued that it could include everything from homosexuality to pedophilia if it were left open to interpretation. He was criticized by other lawmakers and gay-rights groups.
The amendment ultimately included in the bill prohibits schools from discriminating against applicants under any category that’s already protected by federal law or the U.S. Constitution. That includes sexual orientation.
“I think it does what we want morally and legally and constitutionally,” said Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland. “…Which is a recognition that no child should be discriminated against in a charter school for any reason based on their status (or) who they are.”
The dispute over disclosing names and salaries involves the personnel privacy section of N.C. Public Records law.
As part of the agreement that allows nonprofit boards to get public education money, those boards agree to follow public records and open meetings laws. However, the state had no charter schools in 1987 when the General Assembly spelled out which parts of personnel files are protected and which must be disclosed for employees of school districts, city and county governments and the state.
When state Charter School Director Joel Medley notified all schools in April that they could lose their charters if they refuse to comply with public record requests, including salary disclosure, most schools provided the information requested by the Observer.
Soon after the General Assembly convened in mid-May, Sens. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, and Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, introduced a bill saying that charter schools are subject to the same personnel disclosure and protection laws as other public schools. The Senate approved it June 17 and the House had voted “yes” on two of the three required readings before Jeter introduced his amendment.
In the Mecklenburg delegation, Jeter’s amendment found support from Democrat Beverly Earle and Republicans Bill Brawley, Rob Bryan, Ruth Samuelson and Jacqueline Schaffer. Democrats Kelly Alexander, Becky Carney, Tricia Cotham, Carla Cunningham and Rodney Moore opposed it. House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Huntersville, did not vote.
The full bill, which also covers a range of other charter school issues, passed the House 97-18.
The vote came after the two Charlotte-area charter schools that had resisted disclosure of names agreed to provide them to the Observer.
“Truthfully, I always felt like we were going to have to disclose the names,” said Sugar Creek Charter School Director Cheryl Turner, who is a member of the N.C. Charter School Advisory Board.
In response to the Observer’s public records request in March, Sugar Creek and Lincoln charter schools withheld names of all but a handful of top staff, arguing that it would undermine morale if employees knew each other’s salaries. Attorney Richard Vinroot, a former Charlotte mayor and charter school pioneer representing both schools, said the law was not clear on disclosing names. He said the schools would await clarification from the General Assembly.
However, Turner emailed the full list to the Observer on Saturday, saying she just wanted to wait until the school year ended so it wouldn’t disrupt testing.
“I heard horror stories from some of the schools that released in May,” Turner said in an email. “Now that they know we will have to do this annually, it shouldn’t create as many problems in the future.”
Lincoln Charter Chief Administrator Dave Machado said his staff is also preparing a salary list with names for the Observer.
Machado and Turner said they had not yet received a bill from Vinroot for his work.
Martin, the press association lawyer, said it was not immediately clear how the Jeter amendment would affect requests for information about specific charter school employees.
For instance, a Charlotte charter school that closed in its first year amid reports of financial irregularities and academic shortcomings had family members of the founder on the payroll. Documents filed in connection with a lawsuit against StudentFirst Academy revealed questions about whether those family members were qualified for the jobs.
Jeter initially said that journalists who hear about specific cases that indicate improper use of public money should request the list of public information and “do some digging” to match that data with names. But he then said he hopes the Senate revises the bill to require disclosure of names for employees who are related to school officials and for “outliers” who are making significantly more than others in comparable jobs.
The Associated Press contributed.