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Our Opinion: Transparency foes don't represent NC stakeholders

Posted on May 24, 2021

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Details of disciplinary actions taken against government employees are already public record in 36 other states. Senate Bill 355 would unlock that information for North Carolina taxpayers.

Stock photo | Pixabay

Details of disciplinary actions taken against government employees are already public record in 36 other states. Senate Bill 355 would unlock that information for North Carolina taxpayers.

Who says North Carolina’s state employees and schoolteachers are against transparency?

Lobbying efforts from the State Employees Association of North Carolina and North Carolina Association of Educators have dimmed the prospects for shedding more sunlight on public workers’ disciplinary records, but lawmakers shouldn’t take it on faith that these groups speak for the stakeholders they claim to represent.

The associations have pressured Democratic state senators to oppose Senate Bill 355, the Government Transparency Act of 2021, but we can’t find any evidence that either group surveyed its membership to gather consensus. NCAE members tell us they weren’t polled, and an SEANC spokesman said he didn’t know whether any survey was conducted.

If either group could demonstrate overwhelming support for its position among members, we’re sure those details would be readily at hand. Instead, it appears the tail is wagging the dog — lobbyists and salaried staff, not dues-paying members, are setting the associations’ legislative agenda and working to torpedo a transparency bill on a false premise.

North Carolina employs nearly 95,000 teachers, according to N.C. Department of Public Instruction figures. How many of them are active North Carolina Association of Educators members? The NCAE won’t say.

Each year, the N.C. Office of the State Auditor certifies and reports membership figures for public employee associations that receive dues through voluntary payroll deductions. The NCAE has 6,083 members who have dues deducted from their paychecks, according to the most recent annual audit released March 10. As for the grand total, the NCAE “refused to provide membership information.”

If a group is so secretive that it won’t provide State Auditor Beth Wood and her staff with a simple headcount of its members — who are all active or retired government employees — then lobbying against a transparency bill should come as no surprise. But is the association really speaking for the average North Carolina teacher? That’s dubious at best.

Dwindling membership has long been a sticking point for the NCAE’s critics. In January 2020, the Civitas Institute estimated that between 15% and 23% of all public school educators belonged to the organization. That’s hardly representative of Tar Heel teachers as a whole.

The SEANC fares slightly better. It has 24,484 members on payroll deduction and total membership of 47,159, according to the state auditor’s report. That means the association represents just above a third (36.3%) of the roughly 130,000 people the N.C. Office of State Human Resources says state agencies employ.

Even if a quarter of teachers or a third of state employees could be considered a valid representative sample, we don’t know how actual NCAE and SEANC members feel about Senate Bill 355. No one’s bothered to ask them.

The Government Transparency Act of 2021 would make more details about public employees available to the taxpayers who ultimately employ them, but it wouldn’t invade their privacy or spill the entire contents of their personnel files onto the internet. The legislation proposes a modest tweak to existing statutes that make “name, rank and serial number” information subject to disclosure upon request.

State law already provides access to workers’ name, age, hire date, employment contract, current position, title, current salary, date and amount of each salary increase or decrease, date and type of each promotion, demotion, transfer, suspension, separation or other change in classification, date and type of each dismissal, suspension or demotion for disciplinary reasons and the office to which an employee is currently assigned.

Current statutes also require government agencies to release the date and general description of the reasons for each promotion. The Government Transparency Act would expand that line item to include demotions, dismissals, transfers, suspensions and other changes in position classification. 

The bill even includes a due process safeguard — disciplinary information wouldn’t be released until an employee has exhausted all administrative appeals. Sounds fair, right?

Details of disciplinary actions taken against government employees are already public record in 36 other states. This is hardly the “intrusive personnel file bill” the SEANC describes on its website.

Most teachers and state employees are diligent, conscientious and civic-minded. We’d wager the vast majority of both stakeholder groups would side with the public’s right to know — after all, those with nothing to hide have nothing to fear from transparency and accountability.

The NCAE and SEANC aren’t legitimately representing “teachers” and “state employees” in any meaningful sense. Instead, they seem to be running interference for workers who’ve been disciplined for misconduct and wish to keep the details secret from North Carolina taxpayers.

State senators shouldn’t be swayed by such ignoble advocacy. It’s time lawmakers tune out the squeaky wheels and pass the Transparency Act of 2021 for the good of the public they serve.

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