BY ANN DOSS HELMS
North Carolina’s charter school advocates are fond of noting that their schools are public schools.
That is, until they’re asked to disclose the salaries they pay with public money.
When I started seeking salaries from Charlotte-area charter schools in 2014, several schools fought hard before producing the legally required reports.
Alliance Chair Lisa Gordon Stella reports that charters across the state have received public records requests from Open the Books
, a Florida-based nonprofit group that has declared a goal of posting "every dime" of local, state and federal spending online.
Charter schools get a whole lot of dimes in North Carolina: $393,651,756 in the state budget this year. Each local school district also passes along a share of county money based on the number of students who choose charters. In Mecklenburg County alone, that’s expected to come to $37.6 million.
Gordon Stella, a board member at Maureen Joy Charter School
in Durham who just took the lead at the alliance, notes in the email that charter schools are required to disclose salaries under N.C. Public Records Law. But she reports that when she contacted Denise Cattoni at Open the Books, Cattoni indicated there was an out.
Gordon Stella writes that she conveyed concerns and indicated that the information is not available "at the click of a button." Cattoni said the requests weren’t meant to be a burden for schools.
"Based on her communication with Ms. Gordon Stella, Ms. Cattoni stated that the organization is now considering withdrawing the requests entirely," Gordon Stella wrote. "In the meantime, Ms. Cattoni informed Ms. Gordon Stella that any charter school in North Carolina that finds complying with the request burdensome should state so in a response to their email and such schools will be relieved of the duty to respond."
Hmm. I can attest from experience that it’s burdensome to collect the salary information from all the separate charter boards, especially when some enlist lawyers and state officials to help them resist.
But it’s not clear to me why it would be more burdensome for a charter school to produce data on a few dozen employees than, say, for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to produce it for more than 18,000.
The Observer had been posting salaries from CMS and other public bodies for years before the charter school boom made it essential to track down that information as well. After long struggles that included a misguided directive from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction and clarifying legislation from the General Assembly, I finally got and posted the salaries.
Last year I took a temporary assignment covering health care. Some charter schools dragged their heels enough at the 2015 request that we didn’t update the database.
I’m back on the education beat now. And that won’t happen in 2016 if I can help it.
I asked Open the Books leaders if they really planned to withdraw the group’s request if N.C. charter schools say it’s just too much trouble.
Absolutely not, said CEO Adam Andrzejewski, a former telephone directory publisher and GOP candidate for Illinois governor. Shown the alliance’s email, he said that isn’t an accurate representation of the conversation with one of his staff.
"We are simply asking the charters and all public schools to comply with the law," he said Thursday. "While it is true that our organization is easy to work with, we will make sure that the N.C. open records laws are enforced. The law is not voluntary for government officials."
Again: N.C. charter schools get almost $394 million a year from the state, while counties add millions more.
We’ve seen three Charlotte charter schools close amid questions about their spending and academic performance. Two more are currently under scrutiny
Some charter operators may find it troublesome to comply with disclosure laws. But that comes with the territory when you’re running a public school.
Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms