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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

ICYMI, the Wilmington Star-News hits the nail on the head with this editorial on transparency in charter schools. After noting efforts by local charter school boss and all-purpose right-wing crusader Baker Mitchell to keep details of his Roger Bacon Academy secret, the editorial says this:

“The state Senate is considering a bill that would make it abundantly clear that Mitchell and other charter school owners and operators are bound by North Carolina’s public records and open-meetings laws. Period. The Senate Education Committee on Wednesday passed the bill that clarifies that point, as well as one that is intended to ensure that charter school proposals are not rejected arbitrarily.

But some Honorables have made noise about deleting the disclosure provision – the one that is supposed to assure taxpayers that their education dollars are being spent to educate children, not to enrich private companies being paid by the state to compete with public schools.

They should leave it in, and Gov. Pat McCrory should refuse to sign any bill that does not unequivocally state that charter schools, funded overwhelmingly by taxpayers’ money, are subject to the same disclosure rules as “other” public schools.

Of all people, Republican lawmakers who rode into office decrying wasteful government spending surely recognize that the best remedy for that thing they so despise is transparency – especially when it comes to how tax dollars are spent.”

Read the entire editorial by clicking here.

HogsState senators Andrew Brock, Stan Bingham and Brent Jackson want to keep the locations of piles of dead pigs secret — so much so that they’ve introduced legislation which, if passed, would remove state aerial photographs and GPS coordinates of swine farms from “public records” designation.

The impetus for their bill,  SB 762, is the alleged misuse of such information by environmental groups.

But the real intent, say two professors from Duke University School of law in this editorial, is to shield the state’s powerful hog farm industry from public scrutiny and potential liability arising from piles of dead pigs that have succumbed to a highly contagious virus.

As professors Ryke Longest and Michelle Nowlin write:

The Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea virus has hit North Carolina’s industrial hog farms hard. As of April 27, North Carolina had the third-highest number of herds infected in the country, behind Iowa and Minnesota. Veterinarians with the U.S. Department of Agriculture emphasize that the virus does not harm humans, and that appears to be strictly true. At the same time, corpses of pigs that have succumbed to the virus are far from sanitary as they rot in open dead boxes or on the ground. The stacks of dead pigs attract vultures, flies, rats and other vermin.

While the General Assembly considers blanketing factory farms in secrecy, neighbors of hog farms around the state wait for relief from the stench, flies and polluted runoff. Although the state has adopted standards for industrial hog farms that would protect hog farmers’ neighbors, industry officials have refused to implement those technologies on a widespread basis. They have complained that it is more costly to install and operate cleaner waste disposal facilities. The costs of disease and pollution are borne by the public instead.

This is not the first time that state lawmakers have elevated the interests of agribusiness over the concerns of state residents, the professors say. “One of the sponsors of SB 762 this year sponsored legislation last year that sought to criminalize the actions of whistleblowers seeking to investigate factory farms, such as the turkey abuse investigation of 2011,” they note.

Senate bill 762 passed its first reading in the Senate and has been referred to the Committee on Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources.  Its counterpart in the House, HB1189, likewise passed it first reading in that chamber on May 22 and has been referred to the House Committee on Agriculture.

The University of North Carolina didn’t win any points for transparency in a report issued this week that found the Chapel Hill campus failed to respond to a student journalist’s request for copies of athletic department documents.

large_blue_600pxSeveral University of Maryland journalism students, in this report jointly published by the Student Press Law Center, asked 83 public colleges and universities for copies of codes of conduct for athletic departments and teams and other related documents.

While most schools complied with the request for copies of policies related to social media use by student athletes, UNC sat on the records request for more than five months without producing anything. Their inaction stood out from the rest of the schools, the vast majority of which complied with requests for records.

The student journalists also encountered problems at the University of Delaware and the University of Central Florida, both of which denied the requests for information.

Dave Collier, the head of University of Arizona’s journalism school and current president of the national Society of Professional Journalist, called UNC’s handling of the requests “terrible.”

“I don’t know if that’s UNC’s intent here, but it’s really outrageous, that kind of delay,” Cuillier said in the SPLC report. “Does UNC really want to be an outlier? Does UNC want to be seen that way?”

Read More

Reporters around the state have encountered problems in getting public records requests filled quickly, despite state law requiring public agencies to release records “as promptly as possible.”

The New & Observer, in a story over the weekend, details how reporters have faced months-long waits for public records, including the eight months an Asheville-based reporter waited for records related to the state’s unexpected shutdown of an abortion clinic there last year. (Click here to read the Carolina Public Press investigative report that stemmed from those public records.)

The article was published as part of “Sunshine Week,” an annual focus on open government and public records laws across the country.

From the N&O:

The delays mean the public lacks timely insight into how public dollars are being spent and how public servants are fulfilling their duties.

Soon after taking office, Gov. Pat McCrory declared Medicaid “broken” and promised to reform the program. He hired an experienced Medicaid manager, Carol Steckel, as Medicaid director.

The governor made it clear that he wanted to move North Carolina’s Medicaid program to a managed care model, under which private insurance companies would manage parts or all of the program.

When Steckel abruptly resigned in September, The News & Observer requested access to Steckel’s work-related emails. WRAL separately requested all of Steckel’s emails that mentioned managed care.

Six months later, the department has yet to produce a single email.

A slowdown in the public accessing records can make it difficult for news media to pass information to the public, as this article from WRAL explains. It also prevents citizens from being able to scrutinize and evaluate government institutions funded with taxpayer dollars.

From WRAL:

What’s important to remember, [open government lawyer Mike] Tadych said, is that, in accessing public records, reporters are exercising a right available to the average citizen.

“With respect to access to public records, the media have no greater right of access than the general public,” Tadych said. “They may avail themselves of it more, but it’s not just something there for the journalists.”

On the local level, where Tadych said citizens most often deal with government officials, all kinds of public records can help residents find out more about what’s going on in their backyards. That might mean getting information about a change to local zoning ordinances or a proposal to change city rules.

Although he said there’s no legal obligation for local officials to answer your questions, it typically helps to let the public agency know what you’re looking for as narrowly and clearly as possible.

You can learn more about North Carolina’s public records laws and how to request records here.