News: CJ Exclusives

Wake School System Released Private Checking, Routing Number

Activists upset that $300 check was made public

Leaders of a conservative parent group in Wake County are upset that the school system’s public information office released a copy of a personal check from one of its founding members that included her account number.

Kristen Stocking, who serves on the Wake Community Schools Alliance’s steering committee, criticized officials for making public her bank account and routing numbers. Stocking wrote a $300 check to the school system to cover a portion of the costs of a reception Dec. 1 following the swearing-in of the school board’s four new conservative members.

The school system’s public information office didn’t redact account details on the check before making a copy available in response to a public records request from Tim Simmons, vice president of communications for the left-leaning Wake Education Partnership.

“I would be hard-pressed to look a lawyer in the face and say we redacted the info when it wasn’t mandated by state law,” said Michael Evans, chief communications officer for the school district.

Evans said he couldn’t find any reference in the state’s general statutes to protecting the type of financial information on the check once it’s in possession of the government.

“If I would go to a meeting and take possession of a document, even though it’s a private meeting, it becomes a public document. And likewise with this check,” he said.

But Stocking said it was “inconsiderate for them to send the information out,” regardless of the law’s limitations.

“It’s just common sense. You don’t put out people’s personal checks,” she said.

The state’s general statutes prohibit the government from releasing information that reveals an “account number for electronic payment,” such as for a “charge card, credit card, debit card, or by electronic funds transfer.”

Bank account and routing numbers can be used to commit electronic identity theft or to forge checks. The Federal Trade Commission includes both account and routing numbers on its complaint and affidavit form for victims of identity theft.

The open records law doesn’t address the issue of account and routing numbers specifically, said N.C. Press Association lawyer Mike Tadych. But an individual can request ahead of time that such details be redacted before a document is released to the public. The government agency would then be “safe” in withholding the information.

Tadych said he doubts a judge would side with a plaintiff who argued that the government violated the open records law by redacting account and routing numbers from a personal check.

“You wouldn’t really need the account number” for purposes of government transparency, he said.

Stocking said it “never even crossed” her mind that someone would request the check be made public.

A vocal parent group that has spent years advocating school reform, WCSA endorsed four conservative candidates in last fall’s election. Those candidates won in October and November, solidifying a reform majority on the school board for the first time in decades.

Beyond the privacy implications, Stocking is also upset because she says the school system originally quoted WCSA a rate of $300 for the reception, but the superintendent’s office ended up billing the group $693.83.

The reception, catered by Child Nutrition Services, included such “light fare” as coffee, brownies, lemon bars, and mixed nuts.

Joe Ciulla, Sarah Redpath, and Stocking — all three WCSA leaders — initially said they would pay for the reception themselves, but backed down in protest over the heftier bill. Taxpayers will likely have to foot the remaining portion.

The school system last year paid a total of $671.50 to cover swearing-in receptions for school board members Keith Sutton and Carolyn Morrison, The News & Observer of Raleigh reported.

In a telephone interview, Ciulla said others warned him at the time that the school system might “stick it to” him on the final bill.

“I was naïve about it,” he said.

David N. Bass is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.