Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Credit checks create uproar for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

Credit checks create uproar for CMS

ANN DOSS HELMS

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Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools created an uproar among its 18,000-plus employees Tuesday by abruptly requiring them to sign forms authorizing credit checks and research into their "character, general reputation, personal characteristics and mode of living."

Those who don't sign by Friday face termination, according to memos signed by Chief Human Resources Officer Maurice Ambler.

Ambler said Tuesday that CMS plans to check only criminal records, despite the more extensive authorization required by the forms.

"That material was all written by attorneys, not by me," he said, adding that criminal checks fall under the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act.

Superintendent Dr. Peter Gorman, during an interview this morning on WBT-Radio's "Morning News" program, defended the criminal checks but said the school system probably did not give employees enough advance notice.

"I take responsibility for that," Gorman said in the WBT interview.

He also said that he and other school officials will look closer at the three-day deadline, adding that it might not be enough time for employees.

CMS leaders have talked for months about updating criminal checks on employees, prompted partly by the discovery that a teacher caught shooting heroin in an elementary school classroom last June had faced previous drug charges that CMS didn't know about. The criminal checks will cost $46,000 to launch and about $3,000 a month for ongoing reports, Ambler said.

Six CMS employees who spoke to the Observer Tuesday said they support checking employees' criminal records. But they -- along with three school board members -- said they were ambushed by the request for personal information that seems irrelevant to student safety.

"I don't know where CMS is pulling this from and I don't understand why. It's like they're intimidating people," said Mary McCray, president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators. She said she's advising teachers not to sign the forms while she seeks advice from the National Association of Educators, a teachers union.

McCray said one teacher called to ask, "Is the fact that I'm living with a man and we're not married grounds for dismissal?"

Others who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal voiced similar concerns.

"You look at people's different lifestyles -- who's going to make that determination?" said a building services employee.

"There's a lot of people they don't pay a living wage to, so yeah, they're behind (financially)," a teacher said. "I know teachers whose homes are in foreclosure."

Tuesday evening, district leaders who have pledged clear communications with employees and the public were scrambling to quell the furor. Communications staff were working on a Q&A to explain the legalese in plain English, Ambler said.

Two memos about the background checks, signed by Ambler and human resources official Janet Hamilton, are dated Feb. 11. One teacher said she got hers Friday. Five other employees in various locations said supervisors presented them Tuesday. None said they got an explanation of the demand that they authorize credit checks and other personal research. Some said they were told to sign immediately, though supervisors backed down when employees balked.

"If we sign that piece of paper, we have no legal rights whatsoever," a teacher said. "If we don't, we're going to lose our job."

School board Chair Joe White and members Vilma Leake and George Dunlap said Tuesday they'd heard nothing about such requests. White said he'd be surprised if top administrators made such a move without clueing in the board.

Dunlap said he wants an explanation, even if CMS doesn't plan to do the more extensive checks.

"You don't ask people for stuff that you don't intend to use," he said. "I don't like using scare tactics. ... At some point, the right to privacy still exists."

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