Transparency should be mandatory when it comes to state personnel law

The following editorial appeared

in the Charlotte Observer:

As obtuse as the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board has been with regard to superintendent Heath Morrison’s resignation, state law allows it. That needs to change.

WFAE’s Mike Collins asked Gov. Pat McCrory last week about the Morrison situation and the school board. “How transparent do they need to be, and how quickly do they need to be transparent?” Collins asked.

“As quickly as possible,” McCrory replied. “I also have to recognize they may have some state personnel laws which need to be changed to allow more transparency, but I think they need to get the information out.”

McCrory was close. State personnel laws allow transparency already. They need to be changed to require it.

Under the current law, the superintendent of schools – and other employees – can be fired and the school board is legally permitted never to say why. That is absurd.

N.C. General Statute 115c-321 says in part: “Any superintendent may, in his discretion, or shall at the direction of the Board of Education, inform any person or corporation of any promotion, demotion, suspension, reinstatement, transfer, separation, dismissal, employment or nonemployment of any applicant, employee or former employee … and the reasons therefor.”

The superintendent may give the reasons. The school board may require that. No one must reveal why a highly placed, taxpayer-funded employee has left. (Another flaw in the law is that it envisions the superintendent releasing this information. In our case, the superintendent is the employee in question.)

The school board and Morrison said he was resigning to spend time with his ailing mother. Under the law, that charade could have been all anyone ever knew if a report by the system’s general counsel hadn’t been leaked. That’s why board chair Mary McCray wants prosecutors to go after the leaker who “sabotaged” the fiction the board and Morrison were trying to put over on the public.

So the school board is legally allowed to provide the reasons for Morrison’s departure. It is even allowed to show the public his personnel file if it determines doing so “is essential to maintaining the integrity of the board or to maintaining the level or quality of services provided by the board.”

Instead, the school board entered into a confidentiality agreement that it says prohibits it from releasing the very information the law says it can release. The public is left to speculate about fundamental questions around what’s happening at the top of one of the nation’s biggest school systems.

The law needs to be amended to require that the reasons for a high-level employee’s departure be made public. It could also forbid school boards from entering into agreements that prevent them from following that law.

The laws governing cities and counties are slightly better. They make public the reasons for a firing – but not for demotions or, say, resignations to take care of a sick mother.

Legislators should amend these laws in their upcoming session. In the meantime, their shortcomings are no reason for CMS not to do the right thing.

MCT Information Services