Fake news or sign of trouble?

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 8, 2014

RALEIGH — Of the three situations I can recall where agencies receiving large sums of taxpayer dollars wouldn’t divulge employees’ salaries, two of them ended badly. The third – involving a group of charter schools in Southeastern North Carolina – is playing out right now.
In the first two, the denial of salary information to media outlets turned out to be harbingers of more egregious problems. The New Hanover County Alcoholic Beverage Control Board became a high-profile case about five years ago. The agency, headed by Billy Williams, refused for months to release salary information to the Wilmington StarNews. After intense public pressure, the salaries were released. Williams was making $232,000 a year, making him the highest-paid ABC administrator in the state. He made much more than that some years with bonuses.
The salary saga led to further digging into questionable activities involving bidding practices and the construction of ABC stores in New Hanover County. Federal, state and local authorities got involved, and Billy Williams was convicted in August 2011 of obtaining property by false pretense after a jury decided that Williams approved an invoice of $43,000 for work at a local ABC store that actually went to build a two-story garage at his home. A local construction company owner also was convicted in the case.
A second situation earlier this decade involved a nonprofit that received millions of dollars in federal grants to run a Head Start program in Wilmington. After federal audits detailed other problems at the agency – many of them financial in nature – repeated requests for salaries were denied, even though they were paid for by taxpayers. The public never learned what employees or administrators made there, but federal regulators ultimately deemed the agency unfit for further funding, and another organization now runs the program.
The current situation involves The Roger Bacon Academy, a for-profit company that manages three charter schools in Southeastern North Carolina. As of the time of this writing, it had refused for about two months to provide salary data for headmasters, administrators and some teachers to Wilmington media outlets. Other salaries have been provided by the organization after some foot-dragging. Emails and phone calls to Roger Bacon officials weren’t returned for this column.
There are arguments on both sides. School officials say their headmasters and other administrators don’t work for the schools, and instead are employed by the private management company that runs them. Those who favor disclosure argue that they are paid with public money and their salaries should be released. The schools received about $13 million in taxpayer dollars for the 2013-14 fiscal year, the StarNews reported.
Another argument against disclosure is that charters aren’t bound by the same salary schedules as traditional public schools. Therefore, teachers and other employees may make substantially different amounts of money than their peers. Releasing the salaries could lead to hostile work environments.
In articles posted on Roger Bacon’s website, company officials criticize the media for pursuing “fake” news. Instead, they say, reporters and editors should focus on the educational successes at the charter schools and the money they spend educating their students compared to traditional public schools.
The media isn’t going to take that advice. Reporters and editors have encountered these situations before and remember the outcomes, which were far from fake.
Patrick Gannon writes for Capitol Press Association.