The highest paid teacher on the Guilford County Schools (GCS) payroll, Mark Jewell, hasn’t worked for the school system since 2012, lives in Raleigh and currently heads up the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) – a political action group that lobbies state legislators on statewide school concerns.

In a list of school employees provided by GCS to the Rhino Times, published last month, Jewell was listed as “Tchr – NCAE VP” with a salary of $74,088. That brief notation in a long list of names and salaries raised some eyebrows among Guilford County officials and some school system officials who were unaware the agreement existed and who find it strange and concerning.

The NCAE is a union that represents teachers and other educators statewide and advocates for goals such as higher teacher pay and more school funding from state and local governments.

Days after the salary list appeared, Guilford County – which recently provided the school system north of $200 million in total school funding for fiscal 2017-2018 when school debt repayments are included – sent a request for clarification about the arrangement the school system has with the NCAE.

Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing – apparently in response to commissioner concerns – sent the question to Guilford County Schools Chief Financial Officer Angie Henry. In a written response to the question, Henry first summarized the request for information she’d received: “REQUEST: Provide an explanation for NCAE VP Mark Jewell’s salary reflected in the Rhino Times. It appears higher than most teachers.”

Henry followed with her response: “Mark Jewell is paid 12 months on the Master Teacher Salary schedule. Other teachers are paid 10 months. Guilford County Schools receives full reimbursement of Mr. Jewell’s salary and benefits from the NCAE.”

Jewell has had this arrangement for years and it is set to continue for years as well. Jewell began teaching in Guilford County Schools in 1997 and went on to become the president of the Guilford County Association of Educators. In the summer of 2012, he was elected as NCAE vice president and left GCS for the job in Raleigh before being elected president of that group last year. His current two-year term as president ends on June 30, 2018.

Some school board members didn’t know about the arrangement until the Rhino Times school salary list was published and some school and county officials are taken aback that the schools have made the arrangement with the political organization that works for and against certain candidates and causes. In the November 2016 election, every NCAE endorsement in a statewide race went to the Democratic contender.

Guilford County Board of Education member Pat Tillman said the local chapter worked against his election to the school board. Voters may know the “apple cards” shaped like an apple that list the candidates the educator’s group is endorsing in school board races and other races.

“They were absolutely against me,” Tillman said. “I wasn’t on that apple card. That is certainly a concern we have had – that there not be any proselytizing and promotion of candidates inside the schools.”

He said that, of course, outside the workplace, educators like any other citizens are free to politic how they want, but he added that it’s strange to have an employee on the GCS payroll who campaigns to elect various candidates and works against others – even if the salary is reimbursed.

“Awkward is the word,” Tillman said of the arrangement.

Tillman said that he and other elected officials had a great many questions after the Rhino Times salary list was published with Jewell’s salary.

Several Guilford County commissioners said the agreement has been a topic of discussion among county officials who wanted to know why the county’s highest paid teacher works full time for a statewide political group.

Commissioner Justin Conrad said he became aware of the arrangement when another county official pointed it out to him.

“I don’t understand it,” Conrad said.

He said he’s still learning about the arrangement and said he had a number of questions about it and was curious to know whether the school system has other such deals with employees.

Commissioner Alan Branson said it struck him as odd and noted that Jewell came before the commissioners as a speaker from the floor at a June meeting and spoke on the need for the Board of Commissioners to increase school funding.

Commissioner Hank Henning said that, if his understanding of the arrangement is correct, he has serious concerns about it even if the NCAE does reimburse Guilford County Schools all of the money Jewell receives from the school system. Henning said the NCAE reimbursing the schools for Jewel’s salary doesn’t change the fact that it’s a conflict of interest. He said the highly political nature of the NCAE job is a concern given that the organization endorses candidates in school board races and works against other candidates.

“I don’t think that’s right – you’re literally hiring a guy to be involved with a campaign,” Henning said. “It’s just too close for comfort for me. He’s on the payroll of the schools and they were out campaigning against some members who currently sit on the school board. I don’t want to be hyperbolic about it, but that doesn’t seem right to me.”

Henning said that if GCS wants to hire a lobbyist to advocate for the Guilford County school system’s causes with state legislators, that would be more understandable. He said that, for instance, the City of High Point hires a lobbyist to promote that city’s interests.

“I have no problem with that,” Henning said.

He added that this is a different type of arrangement. In addition to the conflict of interest from Jewell and his organization working to unseat some school board members and state legislators, Henning said, it’s just simply odd to have a GCS employee being paid by the taxpayers who are getting reimbursed by a political organization.

“He works for a different organization and is still on the school’s books,” Henning said. “He’s on the school’s payroll but working for a political organization that is paying back the schools.”

When and if Jewell returns to the school system, he will be allowed to pick up benefits where they left off and he is guaranteed a job with the schools.

“We don’t let our own staff take off and keep paying them for years,” Henning said of the 2,200 Guilford County employees he helps oversee. “I’m all for consistency. If one has a right to be on the public payroll and we reimburse them then everyone should be allowed to that. We don’t pay people to hold positions – we pay people to serve the public.”

A statement from GCS on the arrangement noted that this is a common practice among state school systems when a top NCEA official is elected from a school system. This is the first time such an arrangement Guilford County Schools has made for an NCAE officer.

“We have not had other employees who served in this role,” the statement read.

Jewell said this week that there’s nothing nefarious going on and the school system isn’t out any money. He said his salary is fully reimbursed and he will not get benefits from GCS until he returns to a job there.

“I am on loan,” Jewell said. “It is at no cost for the schools.”

In the meantime, he said, benefits from the school system such as his retirement privileges are “frozen.”

Jewell said that, while there is state level politicking by the NCAE, the state branch doesn’t weigh in on local school board races. Instead, he said, that’s left up to the local chapters.

“We’re separate,” Jewell said. “There is no collusion between the two. They operate independently.”

Henning said he doesn’t buy the argument.

“So that means I buy a car from a dealership and take it back, they may say, – oh your beef is not with us it’s with the national company,” Henning said. “It’s unbelievable logic to even try to sell that. It’s pretty much indefensible.”

Jewell said that, while the NCAE does promote things that benefit school systems across the state, there are times when NCAE policy is a “different ends of the spectrum” from local school systems.

Jewell said he plans to run for reelection as NCAE president in 2018, which would mean it could be 2020 before he returns to the GCS – if he chooses to do so at that time. Jewell said he had enjoyed teaching very much but he added that he also likes being in a position where he can help advance the cause of education statewide.

“Obviously, you go into teaching to make a difference in the kids’ lives,” Jewell said. “But I love that I have a stronger voice of influence with the General Assembly.”

He said it’s important work given that the state is 43rd nationally in per pupil spending. Jewell said one of his goals is returning the state to being number one in education in the Southeast, a position he said North Carolina held not all that many years ago.

Jewell, who earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in elementary education from Marshall University, came to Guilford County from West Virginia in 1997 with most of the majority of his teaching career occurring at the elementary level as a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher. He spent 10 years teaching in West Virginia, before teaching for 16 years in the Guilford County school system, where he taught at Oak Hill Elementary in High Point and Murphey Traditional Academy in Greensboro. At both of those schools, Jewell was selected for a “Teacher of the Year” award. Jewell also worked as a lateral-entry specialist for the Guilford County Schools Human Resources Department, where he helped new teachers who enter the profession through the “alternative licensure pathways.”

Jewell served on the Guilford Education Alliance as well as other local education groups and he is the former president of the Guilford County Association of Educators. He’s also served on the board of directors for both the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) and the National Education Association. In April 2012, he was elected the NCAE vice president.

The agreement between GCS and the NCAE reads “During the term of this agreement … Jewell will continue to be employed as a full time employee of GCS and will be paid by GCS commensurate with his qualifications and will include salary from State and local funds, longevity from State and local funds, FICA, estimated Worker’s Compensation insurance, Health, Dental and Life Insurance payments. GCS will not make payments to the Teachers and State Employees Retirement System.”

It also states the NCAE will reimburse the county on a monthly basis and that Jewell is granted leave for “up to 100 percent of his employee time.”

The agreement notes that GCS anticipates Jewell’s return to the school system and that GCS will assure him a teaching position or other position in the district but it does not guarantee any specific assignment. The most recent version of the contract was signed on May 5, 2016.