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Each Monday, Tommy Tomlinson delivers thoughtful commentary on an important topic in the news. Through these perspectives, he seeks to find common ground that leads to deeper understanding of complex issues and that helps people relate to what others are feeling, even if they don’t agree.

If you're a politically connected charter school, apparently you can skip ethics class

The North Carolina House budget bill includes a provision that would let a charter school board bypass the state approval process and open a school in Mooresville this August. WFAE’s Tommy Tomlinson, in his "On My Mind" commentary, says the school’s leaders have a lesson to learn.

Weird stuff gets buried in legislative bills all the time. It’s a way for powerful people to get their pet projects approved while hoping nobody reads the fine print.

A journalist’s job is to read the fine print.

WUNC’s Colin Campbell broke the news the other day about an item buried way down deep in the North Carolina House’s 271-page budget bill. The item is a provision to fast-track a new charter school.

The description is deliberately vague, but when WFAE’s Ann Doss Helms, one of the best education reporters in America, deciphered the details, it was clear that the school in question is the proposed Trinitas Academy in Mooresville.

Here are the two key facts about Trinitas Academy:

One, whoever inserted that provision in the bill was trying to bypass the normal two-year process between when a charter school applies with the state and when it actually opens.

And two, which will not surprise you in the least, Trinitas Academy has political connections.

Trinitas isn’t a school yet, but it does have a website, and the site listed a governing board that included Susan Tillis, the founder of the Susan M. Tillis Foundation, which assists military and veteran families. She also happens to be the wife of U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis. Once Ann’s story came out, Susan Tillis’ name just happened to disappear from the governing board.

Will Bowen, another board member, is the press secretary for U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry.

Here’s why all this matters. The state has a director of charter schools, and a Charter Schools Review Board, and those people are there for a reason. The state needs to be sure that a charter school has teachers, a budget, a curriculum, and all the other things it needs to operate as a school. That’s just being a good steward of the local, state and federal tax dollars that charter schools receive. And it’s also being a good watchdog for an even more precious resource: Our schoolchildren.

Many charter schools are solidly run. But the alternative school system has also become a way for some operators to bring in public money without the same kind of public scrutiny. Not long ago, Ann did a series of stories on a voucher school that got nearly half a million dollars in public money, even though for several months no one seemed to know where the school actually was.

This is exactly why people mistrust the government — they assume that people in power routinely cut corners in a way that you and I don’t get to do. That sure does look like what’s happening here.

Joe Higgins, another board member of Trinitas, said the school plans to operate as what he called a “classical school.” As he told Ann: “We focus heavily on values and virtues. We teach Latin and logic.”

If the school ever opens, I have a suggestion for a lesson. It would be about the values and virtues of trying to run an end-around on the charter school process.

For the Latin part, they could study North Carolina’s state motto: Esse quam videri. To be, rather than to seem.

As in, maybe they should actually be willing to follow the state’s rules, rather than just seeming to.

Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column runs Mondays on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section at wfae.org. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org

Tommy Tomlinson has hosted the podcast SouthBound for WFAE since 2017. He also does a commentary, On My Mind, which airs every Monday.