GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) - On every public school website in Michigan there is a clickable icon to show you how schools are spending your tax money.
"The new state law requires that this information be posted," said GRPS spokesman John Helmholdt. "People were pleasantly surprised that they could so easily access this information."
Target 8 investigators tested whether school districts are as transparent as the law demands by checking to see if districts posted who is earning more than $100,000 per year.
In Kent County, 19 traditional public school districts reported it as required.
Charter schools, though, were a different story.
Only one of them in the county - New Branches - is reporting the required salary information.
"We are an independent charter school," said Pam Duffy of New Branches. "All of us are employees of the school, so we decided to disclose all the salary information for everybody."
Other charter schools report that they have no employees earning over $100,000.
But if they did, most might not report details anyway.
Target 8 investigators found 15 charter schools in Kent County posting statements similar to this one: "The school does not employ any personnel that would be subject to this reporting requirement."
That's because their teachers, administrators, counselors and custodians work for contractors hired by the charter school boards and not for the school boards directly.
Eight of them have contracts with National Heritage Academies , the largest local contractor, headquartered in Grand Rapids with charter schools in nine states.
Officials with National Heritage Academies would not speak with Target 8 on-camera, but said no one earns more than $100,000 in its Grand Rapids-area schools.
But when asked if any corporate office administrators earned that much or more, their spokeperson emailed this reply:
"As a private company, NHA does not provide information on salaries for its employees."
Dan Quisenberry, who runs the state charter school lobbying organization Michigan Association of Public School Academies , told Target 8 investigators that corporate school operators are like private contractors who provide other kinds of services to public agencies.
"There are differences in what's expected of private entities," he said. "You're going to find out what these providers charge the school, but you're not going to know what the mechanic was paid or what the guy who shovels the sidewalk gets paid."
But, said the Vice President of the state Board of Education Cassandra Ulbrich, a snow removal contractor is not the same as a vendor running the whole school.
"This is an outside vendor who is taking control over the entire budget," she said.
In a February 2012 letter to charter schools, the Michigan Department of Education said it is expected charter schools report salary information even if the staff is "...employed by a third party or contractors."
But nothing in state law backs that up.
"The public should care," Ulbrich said, "because these are taxpayer dollars that we are talking about."
Traditional schools complain there's one standard of accountability for them and another for charter schools.
"You would think that under the public education umbrella that all public schools, traditional and charter, would be treated equally," said GRPS' Helmholdt. "And that's just not true."
Public charter schools were created in the 1990s to be less bureaucratic alternatives to traditional public schools. Each one is overseen by an authorizer -- usually a university -- and has its own school board.
"They were supposed to be centers of innovation (and) as such the state wanted them to have as much flexibility as possible," Ulbrich said.
Quisenberry argues that the charters are accountable for taxpayer dollars because their boards are "public officials, so their job is to monitor those costs and really look into these things."
Giving charters even more accountability, backers maintain, is the fact parents have to choose to enroll their children.
"I choose to go to this school," Quisenberry said. "I can choose to walk out of it."
But the taxpayer is left out of the accountability chain.
The charter boards are appointed usually by the authorizing body. The taxpayers don't elect them as they do with traditional school boards. And it appears taxpayers cannot get as much information about how some of them are being run as they can with traditional public schools.
"As a citizen you're very limited on the impact and input you can have on a school that might be literally next door," Ulbrich said. "They really get to play by different rules."
And, she said, there is little interest in the state legislature to change that.
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