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Rep. Tricia Cotham (D-Mecklenberg) sent a letter on Monday to Gov. Pat McCrory, asking him to veto legislation sent to him last week by the General Assembly that allows private, for-profit charter school operators to keep their employees’ salaries secret, even though they are paid with public funds. 

“While this bill requires that charter schools disclose the salaries of direct employees, including teachers, it creates a dangerous loophole that would allow Charter School Management Companies to take advantage of taxpayer funds by hiding payments to the very people and entities for which disclosure is most necessary,” Cotham wrote to McCrory.

Governor McCrory has previously said he would veto any legislation that shielded charter school salaries’ from the public eye.

“I still share my previous concerns with transparency for charter schools, not just for teachers, but for board members and all employees. Lawyers are currently reviewing the interpretations of this new law and I won’t take action on the legislation until we have a clear interpretation on transparency,” McCrory said in a statement last Friday.

Rep. Cotham delivered an impassioned plea to fellow House lawmakers last week to reject SB 793, ‘Charter School Modifications’. Not only did the bill suddenly contain a provision that shielded the salaries of charter school staff who are employed by the parent for-profit company of a school, it also jettisoned an earlier version of the bill that contained protections for LGBT students.

The additional provision to SB 793 comes following months of fighting between prominent Wilmington-based charter school operator, Baker A. Mitchell Jr., and local media outlets that have asked him to fully disclose the salaries of all employees associated with his charter schools—teachers as well as those who work for his for-profit education management organization (EMO), Roger Bacon Academy. Mitchell has refused to disclose his for-profit employees’ salaries.

In addition to operating four charter schools in eastern North Carolina, Mitchell is also deeply involved in charter school politics at the state level. He sits on the state’s Charter School Advisory Board, which approves and monitors new charter schools across North Carolina. 

Mitchell has also given thousands of dollars in campaign donations to Sen. Jerry Tillman (R-Moore, Randolph), a key proponent of charter schools.

In her letter to McCrory, Rep. Cotham asked McCrory to keep his word about transparency.

“Now is not the time to play politics, to play word games, or to only listen to donors. Now is the time for ethical leadership and for unwavering commitment to the principles you earlier said you support. I call on you to keep your word and veto this bill.”

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House lawmakers approved legislation Friday that allows private, for-profit management companies that run charter schools to keep their employees’ salaries secret, even though they are paid with public funds.

The bill also fails to provide protections for LGBT students, even though an earlier version did.

While the bill, SB 793, or Charter School Modifications, clarifies that the salaries of charter school teachers and non-profit boards of directors are subject to public disclosure, employees of for-profit companies that are contracted to manage the operations of charter schools would not be subject to those rules.

In a prior version of the bill, language simply required charter schools to publicly disclose all employees’ salaries.

The change comes at a time when one prominent Wilmington-based charter school operator, Baker A. Mitchell Jr., has been fighting media requests for months that have asked him to fully disclose the salaries of all employees associated with his charter schools – teachers as well as those who work for his for-profit education management organization (EMO), Roger Bacon Academy.

Mitchell, who also sits on the N.C. Charter School Advisory Board that is tasked with approving and monitoring charter schools, operates four charter schools in southeastern North Carolina through his for-profit company.

Roger Bacon Academy has raked in millions of dollars in profits that consist of public funds since 1999 – and Mitchell himself has profited to the tune of at least $16 million in management fees over the past several years. Read More

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The Wilmington StarNews reports that Baker Mitchell’s Roger Bacon Academy, the for-profit education management organization that oversees four charter schools Mitchell founded in eastern North Carolina, as well as another company that leases school equipment and supplies both take in considerable sums of money from leasing land, buildings, equipment and supplies to Mitchell’s schools.

For the 2013-14 school year, Charter Day School in Leland and Columbus Charter School in Whiteville paid Mitchell’s Roger Bacon Academy about $1.5 million to lease their buildings. As part of their contract, the schools also agreed to pay property taxes and insurance, which totaled another $90,000; and building upkeep, for another $200,000. Douglass Academy, housed in the Peabody Building on North Sixth Street in downtown Wilmington, is leased from the nonprofit Friends of New Hanover County Community Action for $1 per year.

The company plans to open a fourth school, South Brunswick Charter School in Southport, this fall.

Mitchell incorporated both the Roger Bacon Academy for-profit education management company and the for-profit Coastal Habitat Conservancy school equipment and supply rental company in early 1999. He founded the first nonprofit charter school four months later, according to records from the N.C. Secretary of State’s Office.

Mitchell currently serves as the secretary for Charter Day School Inc.’s board of trustees, is the president of the management company and is the registered agent for the rental company.

That means Mitchell leads the company that manages the schools and the company that rents equipment to the schools and is an officer on the schools’ decision-making board.

Mitchell, who also sits on the state board that reviews and recommends new charter school bids in the state, has come under intense scrutiny lately as he has fought hard to keep the salaries of his public charter school employees secret, even though state law requires that information to be made available to the public.

Mitchell, who he himself has collected in the neighborhood of $16 million in taxpayer funds over the past five years for managing charter schools in southeastern North Carolina according to IRS filings, is reportedly under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General, but details of that case have not been made public.

One of Mitchell’s newer charter schools, Douglass Academy in Wilmington, is currently under a warning for low enrollment numbers. The school must boost those numbers to the statutory minimum of 65 early this fall in order to avoid closure.

Read the full StarNews story here.

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In case you missed it over the weekend, the Wilmington StarNews had another good editorial concerning the efforts of some of the state’s public charter schools to keep the salaries they pay secret and en effort by lawmakers to approve of the secrecy.

“The public has a right to know who works for its government agencies and institutions, how much they are paid and other important details of their employment. North Carolina’s General Statutes make that clear.

But after news organizations including the StarNews sought salary information for charter schools, a Charlotte-area state representative introduced an amendment that allows charter schools to redact the names of employees from salary lists. The House foolishly passed the amendment on Thursday; the Senate should opt for full disclosure.

At best, this amendment sets a bad precedent by shielding some public employees from full disclosure when others – including teachers in the state’s traditional public schools – do not enjoy that same protection. At worst, the amendment could go a long way toward confirming what charter school critics have been saying all along: that these schools are effectively private schools paid for with taxpayers’ money.”

The editorial goes on to provide more updates on the efforts of a charter school chain in the Wilmington area run by right-wing funder and activist Baker Mitchell

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School-vouchersThe North Carolina House voted yesterday to amend the state charter schools law to bar discrimination against children “with respect to any category protected under the United State Constitution or under federal law applicable to the states.” While the language was drawn hastily in the aftermath of Rep. Paul Stam’s embarrassing homophobic rant of the other day and would appear to include some potential wiggle room for creative bigots, it’s certainly a step forward.

That said, the House’s action (which still needs to be approved by the Senate and the Governor) serves to highlight another glaring problem in state education law — namely, the fact that the state’s new school voucher system not only allows such discrimination; it is based upon it.

As Raleigh’s News & Observer notes in an editorial this morning: Read More