Neither the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) nor the Office of the State Auditor is any stranger to media attention. Between the NCAE’s dues check off litigation and the State Auditor’s recent report on corruption at DHHS, both organizations have seen their share of the limelight. But an impending audit of the NCAE, required under North Carolina law, could once again put both of these organizations front and center.
The NCAE is the state’s largest association of educational employees. It is also the state affiliate of the National Educators Association (NEA), one of the most powerful lobbies in national politics. Both organizations have decisively leftist policies and goals. The NCAE is the closet thing to a teachers’ union that exists in North Carolina, which is a Right to Work state.
Under North Carolina law, the NCAE receives a state-administered benefit informally referred to as the “dues check off.” This is where members’ dues can be withheld from their paychecks and paid directly to the organization by employers. This way, members do not have to pull out their pocketbooks to write a check, and the NCAE spends less money than it otherwise would processing membership fees.
Technically, the dues check off is considered an assignment of a state employee’s claim against the state. So, the state employee has a “claim” in the form of his or her salary, and he or she “assigns” a portion of that claim to the NCAE. Such assignments are void unless otherwise explicitly authorized by statute. The assignment better known as the “dues check off” is authorized in N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143B-426.40A(g), which states as follows:
An employee of any local board of education who is a member of a domiciled employees’ association that has at least 40,000 members, the majority of whom are public school teachers, may authorize in writing the periodic deduction each payroll period from the employee’s salary or wages a designated lump sum or sums to be paid for dues and voluntary contributions for the employees’ association.
So, the statute confers a right not on the NCAE, but rather on its members. It allows them to designate a portion of their salary as membership dues.
While the right is conferred on the employees, the validity of the assignment still turns on the NCAE’s membership numbers. The organization must have at least 40,000 members, and a majority of these members must be public school teachers. While this requirement has been in effect since July 1, 2007, the statute lacked any meaningful enforcement mechanism – until now.
In August of 2014, a small change was made – a small change with potentially massive ramifications. That was the passage of House Bill 1133. The Senate used the bill as an opportunity to add language requiring an annual audit by the State Auditor certifying that the NCAE has at least 40,000 members, the majority of whom are public school teachers. As of this writing, we are fast approaching the end of North Carolina’s fiscal year, which is July 1. This means that the State Auditor will soon be issuing a report that will determine whether or not the NCAE continues to benefit from the dues check off.
State Auditor Beth Wood, a Democrat, has made no secret of the fact that she is willing to do her job and do it well. Just last month her office published a scathing audit of the Office of Medicaid Management Information Systems Services (OMMISS) within the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). While that audit is its own story, the point is that the State Auditor seems more concerned with doing her job well than winning popularity contests.
This all begs the question – what are the NCAE’s membership numbers? The Civitas Institute has made an effort to gather these numbers both by asking local boards of education and by directly asking the NCAE. Answers from local school boards have been scattered and incomplete, and the NCAE has so far not provided a response – though to be fair, the Civitas request for their membership numbers was only sent on May 27, and the organization is under no legal duty to respond. Mike Antonucci of the Education Intelligence Agency estimates that during the 2011-2012 academic year, the NCAE had 49,142 members, but was losing members at a rate of over 10 percent each year. While past data cannot be used to project the future, it certainly is within the realm of possibility that the organization is dangerously close to the 40,000-member threshold.
If the audit were to find that the NCAE both has 40,000 members and that a majority of these members were “public school teachers,” then the organization would continue to benefit from its dues check off. If instead, the audit finds that the NCAE’s numbers are lacking, its dues check off would immediately become void and illegal under state law. The NCAE would be forced to collect its own dues, rather than having them automatically deducted at the taxpayers’ expense. Despite all this uncertainty, one thing is clear – the impending audit has the potential to once again put both the NCAE and the Office of the State Auditor front and center.