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Public deserves explanation for Cartner's leaving

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Sunday, September 2, 2018

With the request for more local funding a constant refrain in the Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools, we were as surprised as anyone to learn the district apparently has enough money to pay now-former Superintendent Larry Cartner $318,000 to essentially leave before his contract is up.

The ECPPS Board of Education claimed in a press release following Cartner’s abrupt resignation Aug. 13 that his departure was “voluntary” and that the payment, which apparently was negotiated with Cartner’s attorney and formally agreed to on Aug. 20, was less than half what ECPPS would have owed Cartner had the district decided to terminate him without cause.

But it’s hard to see how paying $318,000 instead of $650,000, which is what ECPPS school board attorney John Leidy said the district could have owed Cartner had he been fired without cause, can be described as a “savings.” That’s particularly true given the fact the school district gets nothing for that money — except Cartner’s departure — and will now have to pay someone else a six-figure salary, likely for a minimum of three years, to replace him.

Compounding taxpayers’ frustration about the payout is the school board’s dissembling about Cartner’s resignation and the reasons for it. Was Cartner’s leaving really voluntary? Typically, you don’t pay someone nearly a third of a million dollars because he’s ready to go. But neither Cartner nor ECPPS officials will reveal what was behind the move. And unfortunately under North Carolina’s misnamed Open Records Law, they don’t have to.

Leidy told Daily Advance reporter Reggie Ponder that while the financial terms of the school district’s payout agreement with Cartner are a public record, the agreement itself — which presumably contains the reasons Cartner is leaving early — is not. Leidy said his reading of state law shelters the agreement from release because it’s considered part of Cartner’s personnel file. And just to make sure the real reasons for Cartner’s departure remain safe from public scrutiny, the agreement also contains a provision prohibiting both the former superintendent and the school board from discussing the agreement’s details.

We have no beef with Leidy’s analysis. As an expert in personnel law, he knows what the state’s open records law requires to be released and what can legally stay hidden. All public bodies in North Carolina in fact use the law’s exemptions to release only those details about public employees that they’re required to. We’re assuming the only reason details of Cartner’s payout were released is because it’s considered part of his salary, which is information the law says the public has a right to know. So it’s OK for us to know that Cartner, who worked for us, was paid $318,000 to leave our employ; we just can’t know why.

Our grievance is with the ECPPS Board of Education. The reason we hold school board elections is essentially to hire people to represent us in sensitive matters like the hiring and firing of school superintendents. Because we hand over this responsibility to others, we can’t reasonably expect to always know why certain decisions are made. We have to trust that those we’ve employed will make the proper decisions. And when they lose that trust, we fire them by electing someone else.

No doubt members of the ECPPS school board believe they did the right thing agreeing to end Cartner’s contract with the district early. And while they inherently know every tax dollar is precious, they probably also believe paying Cartner $318,000 to leave now was the best option they had.

They shouldn’t expect the rest of us to trust they made the right decision, however — not without more information.

We would remind the school board that while the public records law prevents disclosure of a lot of information about public employees, it does contain a provision allowing the board to say more about the reasons for Cartner’s resignation. The provision, found in General Statute 115C-321(b) gives school superintendents the discretion, if it’s been OK’d by a school board, to “allow the personnel file of (a) person or any portion (of it) to be inspected and examined ... provided that the board has determined that the release ... is essential to maintaining the integrity of the board or ... maintaining the level or quality of services provided by the board.”

We believe public confidence in the ECPPS school board has been shaken by the Cartner payout. Two members of the public in fact called for the board to be more transparent about the reasons for the superintendent’s departure at last week’s board meeting. We believe the board could restore public confidence in their decision-making by directing the interim superintendent to either release the board’s full agreement with Cartner or a summary of it.

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