State Politics

Legislators take aim at teachers’ association leader

Rodney Ellis is president of the N.C. Association of Educators.
Rodney Ellis is president of the N.C. Association of Educators.

Republican legislators are criticizing school boards for allowing teachers to remain employed while taking time off to work for the N.C. Association of Educators.

Their target was clear: Association president Rodney Ellis, who was repeatedly mentioned by name as lawmakers grilled the superintendent and school board chairwoman for Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools in a legislative hearing Wednesday.

The Forsyth officials were asked to attend the meeting of the Joint Legislative Commission on Government Operations, a powerful oversight committee known as Gov Ops.

Ellis hasn’t worked in a Forsyth classroom for years, but the school district treats him as an employee who’s on “educational leave.” NCAE reimburses the school district for his salary and benefits, and he earns years of service toward retirement.

Sen. Chad Barefoot, a Wake County Republican, said that arrangement is wrong. “How do the students benefit from having a teacher out on leave working for the teachers’ union?” he asked Forsyth school leaders.

Barefoot said NCAE employees have similar arrangements in other counties, including Wake. “When I found out about this, I could not believe we were doing this,” he said.

The Forsyth leaders said working for the teachers’ association results in a “direct benefit” to students because the group’s work improves the “atmosphere of our teachers as a whole.”

But Barefoot suggested that extending contracts for NCAE employees creates a conflict of interest for school boards. That’s because the educators’ group lobbies the school boards and endorses candidates in school board elections.

“We are giving contracts to employees to be the head of an organization that turns around and lobbies us for political issues,” he said.

On Thursday, Ellis fired back against the legislature’s criticism.

“This targeted attack on NCAE is nothing more than retaliation by some in the General Assembly because we speak up for public school students and against the systematic dismantling of public education,” he said in a written statement issued by his group. “When North Carolina is ranked 46th in per-pupil spending and 42nd in teacher pay, educators will not back down from a fight to give students more opportunities to be successful.”

Ellis’ group has sparred frequently with legislative leaders since Republicans took the majority in 2011. In 2012, legislators voted to end an automatic payroll deduction for dues that teachers pay to NCAE – a law that was later overturned in court.

Then-Speaker Thom Tillis had said in a private caucus meeting that the change would give the group “a little taste of what’s to come.”

At this week’s legislative commission meeting, House Democratic Leader Larry Hall said any review of leave policies should be broader than Forsyth County and NCAE employees.

He said legislators should also look at any similar policies that might benefit district attorneys or sheriffs who take time off to work for their statewide advocacy groups.

“It may be that across the board, this is a policy that needs to be looked at,” Hall said, urging legislators to be cautious about making changes. “We may be missing some of the benefit we receive for the advocacy that is done.”

NCAE staffers aren’t the only employees of private advocacy groups who can participate in the state retirement system: Employees of the N.C. League of Municipalities and the N.C. Association of County Commissioners have been part of the system for years.

Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698, @RaleighReporter