A parent recently emailed me with concerns about a soon-to-open charter school in Charlotte. She's considering enrolling her child, she said, so she has been asking questions about staffing, attending board meetings and researching the new director. Material she found from the two charter schools where that director worked previously led her to doubt whether the new school's board had made a wise hire and accurately represented the director's experience.
I'm not including specifics because I haven't had time to verify this information. But my first step was obvious: Email the two N.C. charter schools where the director worked and ask for details of her work history, including her titles, dates of employment and whether she resigned or was dismissed.
Under a charter bill passed by the state Senate on June 17, that information would be indisputably a matter of public record.
Under the amended version the House passed last week, that's far less clear.
But the amendment doesn't limit itself to certain types of requests or certain categories of employees. It simply says that names of charter school employees "shall not be open to inspection," apparently putting names into the same category of confidentiality as job evaluations.
I asked public records and personnel experts at the UNC Chapel Hill School of Government how this might play out.
"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 and Associate Dean Freyda Bluestein, after reading the amendment and consulting with a colleague.
Most charter schools name their administrators on their web sites, and some name their full faculty. Employees often make presentations or are included in announcements at charter school board meetings, which are public and whose minutes become public records. Would this kind of disclosure be forbidden?
"It seems to me that it might prohibit the release of the name for any purpose, as I mention in my email," Bluestein responded.
The bill that passed the Senate on three readings and the House on the first two puts charter school employees under the same personnel privacy protections and disclosure requirements as other public schools. That spells out 11 personnel items that must be made public for each employee, including name, employment date, terms of contract, current position, salary (including benefits, incentives and bonuses) and information about promotions, demotions, transfers and disciplinary actions.
The amended version that passed the House on third reading removes names from that list.
That creates another puzzler: If someone -- whether a journalist, parent or prospective employer -- requests the public information for an individual employee by name, can the school release it? And if so, are they required to do so?
"I suppose technically, if you somehow had the list of names already and asked for their salaries, (or any other type of information that is public under that statute), they might be required to provide the salaries and other information since this would not involve the school actually making the names open to inspection (since they were provided in the request)," said Bluestein. "I'm not sure exactly how this would work as a practical matter, if enacted."
Bear in mind that this legislation came about because of confusion about what the law requires. Even charter leaders who said they thought public disclosure was appropriate hesitated to release information in the face of mixed messages from state staff. If something as basic as publicly naming the director of your school is potentially breaking the law, I predict some of the public money going to charter schools is going to be spent on legal advice.
Here's hoping that as the Senate and House reconcile the two versions of the bill, they think this through carefully.