NC Senate panel backs charter school salary disclosure

ahelms@charlotteobserver.comJune 11, 2014 

The Senate Education Committee on Wednesday approved a bill that clarifies public disclosure requirements for charter schools.

The bill, which next goes to the full Senate, comes as charter schools are booming in North Carolina and as the Observer has asked them to report publicly paid salaries, as other public schools do. Charter schools are run by private nonprofit boards and authorized by the state to receive public education money.

The bill puts into law what state officials have repeatedly said: Charter schools are bound by the same state open meetings and public records laws as other public schools. The issue arose this spring when the Observer requested salaries for employees of 22 area charter schools.

Charter boards agree to comply with those laws as part of their contract to get public money, but two schools represented by Charlotte lawyer and former Mayor Richard Vinroot argue that doesn’t mean they have to release salaries by name. Those schools provided names and salaries only for a handful of top administrators.

Vinroot, who represents Sugar Creek and Lincoln charters, said he is waiting to see if the legislature provides clarification. He and Sugar Creek Director Cheryl Turner have argued that revealing names and pay undermines staff morale and erodes charter schools’ flexibility to use merit- and market-based pay.

Committee Chairman Jerry Tillman’s committee considered a version of the charter bill that did not address public records and open meetings, but it went with a version that did.

“Whether it’s in or out makes no difference,” Tillman said in an interview before the meeting. “The law is clear: All public schools must disclose.”

Sen. Clark Jenkins, D-Tarboro, asked during the committee meeting whether the bill means charter schools must disclose salaries by name. Tilllman said it does.

In the interview, Tillman, R-Randolph, said he sympathizes with the concern that disclosure will create internal problems, but “transparency trumps all.”

The bill also allows single-gender charter schools. Charter schools are generally forbidden to discriminate among applicants.

The only “no” on the committee’s voice vote came from Sen. Malcolm Graham, D-Mecklenburg, who said he doesn’t have problems with the bill but doesn’t trust supporters’ intent. He said afterward he worries about “out-of-town corporations coming to North Carolina” and starting schools that don’t serve the students who most need help.

Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter: @anndosshelms

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