Yoga, media leaks and ‘special access’ feature in battle of CMS email requests
This article originally appeared in Ann Doss Helms' weekly education newsletter. To get the latest schools news in your inbox first, sign up for our email newsletters here.
Every spring, journalists like me celebrate Sunshine Week by reminding folks that access to public records is a fundamental right for everyone, not a special privilege for reporters. Lately, though, that seems superfluous. Over the last couple of years public records requests filed by non-journalists have surged in government bodies across the country, including in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
“Sometimes it’s from engaged local citizens. Sometimes it’s from people who live across the country,” board Chair Elyse Dashew said recently. “It’s sort of become common knowledge that this is your right. It’s almost like a Google search now.”
CMS hired its first public records officer in fall 2020. He currently makes almost $99,000 a year. His duties include collecting and posting records while redacting things that are confidential, such as individual student information and personnel records. In 2021 the district launched an online portal for making public record requests. In 2022, the first full year of operation, CMS processed 544 requests.
North Carolina’s public records law covers not just official reports and documents, but all records produced in the course of doing public business. That includes emails, text messages and social media posts sent to and from public officials, even from their personal accounts, as long as it’s related to their public role. As you can imagine, journalists and activists find that a great way to unearth the story behind the story and keep tabs on public officials.
Checking up on each other
Justin Parmenter, a CMS teacher, is one of our area’s most proficient users of public records. In 2020 the North Carolina Open Government Coalition honored Parmenter for his work requesting documents about a controversial state contract for reading assessments. He continues to populate his Notes from the Chalkboard blog with material produced through public records requests, most recently involving state efforts to reshape teacher pay and licensure.
He has used CMS requests to get communications between school board members and Moms For Liberty, a right-leaning parent rights group, and to try to catch board member Sean Strain leaking information to a reporter (that request yielded nothing).
Parmenter is also the subject of a recent records request that has some on the right questioning at-large board member Jennifer De La Jara, an outspoken Democrat. Parmenter is on the North Carolina Association of Educators’ board of directors, putting him in the crosshairs of those who cast the Democratic-leaning teacher group as an advocate for the rights of educators over those of students and families.
Glen Stephens, a CMS parent who describes himself as an unaffiliated conservative and an evangelical Christian, filed a request on Dec. 17 for all communications between six Democratic school board members and Parmenter. He told me he wanted to see what kind of influence Parmenter, in his role with the teachers’ group, had on Dashew, De La Jara and four newly elected members: Summer Nunn, Dee Rankin, Stephanie Sneed and Melissa Easley.
A month later he got a massive batch of documents. He says a couple of them raise questions about De La Jara’s conduct. One, dated Aug. 4, 2022, was sent to Parmenter and another CMS parent activist with the header “and so the fall return to school fun begins …”
De La Jara opens with “An email I received this morning … geez!” She then copies a message from a CMS parent objecting to children being made to participate in yoga in class. “While I understand not everyone doing yoga is participating in Hinduism or Transcendental meditation, it is still derived from religion the same as prayer, worship, or mutilation,” the parent wrote.
De La Jara included no identifying information when she forwarded that parent’s message. She did, however, forward Parmenter a different email from a parent complaining that a book assigned for class contained inappropriate material. De La Jara labeled it “book banning.”
That message, which included replies from three board members, contained the full name and email address of the parent making the complaint, as well as the student’s school and other personal details, which were redacted from the version released to Stephens.
In September, De La Jara sent Parmenter an April email exchange between Dashew and Strain, a Republican board member who was defeated in November. In it Dashew reports that she and Vice Chair Thelma Byers-Bailey met with Strain to discuss infractions of the board’s Code of Ethics related to his directives to CMS staff and his communications with reporters.
Dashew writes that Strain gave a reporter a staff member’s resignation letter that was confidential, and tells Strain she suspects but can’t prove that he leaked other confidential information. Strain defends his actions and says that if Dashew is going to accuse him “you’d better have some evidence to back it up.”
Stephens isn’t accusing De La Jara of giving Parmenter anything confidential. But Stephens says the fact that Parmenter got them directly from a board member without having to file a records request shows that De La Jara is giving him “special access.” And the fact that she passed along a parent’s concern with dismissive comments is insensitive at best, he told me.
Are the emails damning?
Stephens says the messages might violate the board’s Code of Ethics. He has filed a complaint with the board’s constituent services office — and a new records request seeking all communication between De La Jara and Parmenter going back to when she took office in 2019.
He says the board as a whole should answer his question: “Should any member of the Board of Education be communicating on a regular basis and sharing emails on a regular basis to an employee of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools?”
Brooke Weiss, chair of the local Moms for Liberty chapter, sides with Stephens, saying it was unprofessional of De La Jara to “mock a parent’s religious belief.”
De La Jara declined to discuss Stephens’ complaints in detail, but responded that “there is no violation of board ethics. What I find ironic about the claim is that Mr. Stephens has been the recipient/beneficiary of similar emails sent to him by previous board members.”
Parmenter declined to discuss the matter. “I’m not giving Glen Stephens’s creepy infatuation with me any more time/attention than required to by law,” he said.
Dashew said she hasn’t been following Stephens’ tweets about the emails, but “I’m not hearing anything in there that has anything to do with the board’s Code of Ethics.” She said fulfilling requests for correspondence can be time-consuming for elected officials and staff, but “it’s the people’s right to see our work.”
One great thing about the online system is you can view everything that’s been released through anyone’s requests. I’ve included links above, and I’d just caution that the technology can be a bit challenging. Anything with a check under “Status” is available for viewing; click the request number, then select “Documents” next to “Timeline.”
My Apple desktop won’t open a lot of the attached records, but my Microsoft laptop will. The search function isn’t great; I often had to try several variations of names to find what I was looking for. And if you decide to dive in, be prepared to read a lot of routine documents and correspondence.
But when it comes to public information, too much material is a good challenge to face.
Editor's note: The original version of this item incorrectly said an email Jennifer De La Jara forwarded to Justin Parmenter about a parent objecting to a book assignment included the student's name. The CMS public information officer says the name was not in the material that was blacked out because it was part of the student's education record.
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