One side effect of the surge in school choice around Charlotte is that it's getting harder to keep track of public education decisions and spending.
Mecklenburg County currently has about two dozen public school boards, though only one of them gets much attention. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board, which has responsibility for more than 144,000 students and controls a $1.2 billion budget, gets regular coverage from the news media and scrutiny from others interested in public education. The folks who serve on that board go before county voters every four years.
But about 10,800 Mecklenburg students, or roughly 7 percent of the total public-school enrollment, attend charter schools, which are run by independent boards. Members aren't elected but those boards are public bodies, subject to N.C. Open Meetings and Public Records laws.
I'm not about to add all those charter board meetings to my calendar, but I got curious enough to check the web sites for the 16 charters currently operating inside Mecklenburg County (a fuller tally would include those in nearby counties which draw Meck students and the 11 new charters just authorized to open in 2014). Could I find information about their board members and meetings?
At the other end of the spectrum were Invest Collegiate and Crossroads, where I could find nothing about board members or meetings. You might be able to get that information by calling or emailing, but nothing about the web pages tip you off that these schools are open to public scrutiny or participation.
The rest fall in between. I managed to find meeting times and locations for 11 of the 16, though sometimes it took some hunting. Some don't list board members at all, some list only names and some give biographical and contact information.
State law requires public bodies that have web sites to post notice of their meetings (agendas aren't required). Amanda Martin, attorney for the N.C. Press Association, says charter boards need to be aware of their public role. "They need to be as transparent as the Mecklenburg County school system," she said.
Joel Medley, director of the N.C. Office of Charter Schools, says his staff "hammers on" the need for charter board to comply with the Open Meetings law. Some post meetings on bulletin boards at school, he said, but if they have a web site, the board meetings should be listed.
Regardless of how well those schools post their meetings, none are likely to get regular media coverage. Which poses the next question: What kind of reception do parents, community members and other interested parties get if they seek to attend charter board meetings? If you've attended meetings or requested public documents from charters, let me know how it has gone. Choice and innovation are cause for celebration, but public spending without public oversight is cause for concern.