Move to ban release of NC charter-school names loses key support in House

ahelms@charlotteobserver.comJuly 3, 2014 

Rep. Charles Jeter

N.C. GENERAL ASSEMBLY

State Rep. Charles Jeter, the Mecklenburg Republican who pushed to make names of charter-school employees private, said Thursday that he has withdrawn support for his own amendment.

Instead, he said he hopes to see lawmakers, educators and journalists discuss the best way for the N.C. Public Records Law to be applied consistently to district schools and charters, which are run with public money by private boards. Any proposals to come out of that would be introduced in 2015, he said.

“It’s a bigger issue than I originally thought it was,” said Jeter, whose children attend a Charlotte-area charter school.

An eight-person conference committee of senators and representatives has been named to reconcile differences in a bill that covers a range of charter-school issues, including disclosure of personnel information. Jeter said he has spoken with committee co-chair Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, and urged the panel to drop his amendment that says charter-school employees’ names are not subject to public disclosure.

Earlier this week, Gov. Pat McCrory threatened to veto any version of the bill that “attempt(s) to hide the names of charter school employees from the public record.”

The Senate version states that charter schools are subject to the same disclosure requirements as other public schools, which includes names, positions and salaries.

Jeter said the amendment he introduced last week was well-intentioned but poorly executed. He said he intended to restrict lists such as the one the Observer published this spring, giving names, positions and salaries for employees of 22 charter schools. He said his goal was that journalists and other members of the public could get all details except the names.

However, the amendment apparently would block charter schools from releasing employee names under any circumstances – including, potentially, posting on school websites or responding to reference checks.

“It appears to prohibit the release of the name of an employee, presumably for any purpose. That seems to be a broader limitation than what might have been intended,” said professor Frayda Bluestein, a public records expert at the UNC Chapel Hill School of Government who reviewed the amendment at the Observer’s request.

The Observer also asked Gerry Cohen, special counsel to the General Assembly, about the implications of the amendment. Cohen did not respond, but Jeter said Cohen came to him and voiced concerns.

Questions about charter school disclosure arose in March, when the Observer requested the same salary information from charter schools that it has long published for employees of school districts, universities and state and local governments. The confusion arose because the personnel privacy section of the public records law spells out what’s protected and what must be disclosed for school district employees, but doesn’t speak to charter schools, which didn’t exist in North Carolina when the privacy section was added.

At that time, Jeter told the Observer charter schools should be required to make the same disclosure as other public schools: “You can’t pick and choose when it’s convenient.”

Last week he told his colleagues that charter schools shouldn’t be forced to reveal names because their employees are not state employees and because they aren’t bound by the state’s teacher salary schedules. Charter schools use merit-based pay, Jeter said, and revealing which teachers make more than others would create “a hostile work environment.”

During debate on his amendment, Jeter said he didn’t think district schools should be required to release teachers’ names with salaries, either. He declined one colleague’s suggestion to put the amendment aside to allow further study.

On Thursday, Jeter said he has been criticized for switching positions but doesn’t believe that is true. He said he has consistently said charters and district schools should play by the same rules. However, he said he did act too hastily in introducing the amendment, which came just before the third of three required House votes on the charter bill.

Jeter said he now thinks the state should consider adding two more items to the 11 things that must be disclosed from public personnel files: Gender and relationship to other employees.

During debate on Jeter’s amendment, Reps. Carla Cunningham, D-Mecklenburg, and Verla Insko, D-Orange, said publishing names and salaries lets women see whether they’re being paid equally for equal work. Jeter said that’s a valid concern, and one that isn’t necessarily addressed by revealing names. Likewise, he said, names don’t tell you whether there are nepotism issues.

Jeter, a first-term legislator, said he remains sympathetic to the argument that there’s no benefit to naming teachers when their salaries are reported. But he now thinks that issue needs to be explored in a broader discussion that covers all types of public schools. As for whether he’ll be around to see the matter settled, he said, that depends on whether he survives a November election challenge by Democrat Robin Bradford.

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

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