On Friday, April 26, 2019, the South Kingstown School Committee held an emergency meeting that was called to order at about 10:00 a.m. in the South Kingstown Administration Building conference room. It appears the notice for this emergency meeting was posted one day after there was an announcement on social media [April 23, 2019] that South Kingstown School Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow accepted a similar position with the Norwich, Connecticut School Department and on the same day Ms. Stringfellow dated her letter of resignation [April 24, 2019].
The full School Committee was present at the April 26 meeting, including Stephanie Canter, Sarah Markey, Alycia Collins, Emily Cummiskey, Jacey Northup, Ms. Kate McMahon Macinanti and Ms. Michelle Brousseau. Also present was the School Committee legal representative, Mr. Andrew Henneous, Esq. The South Kingstown School Superintendent, Ms. Stringfellow was not in attendance, nor were any remaining members of the School Administration. The Committee Chair, Canter, scheduled this meeting for such a convenient time for South Kingstown residents that I was the only member of the public in attendance at the start of the meeting. In addition, there was no public comment permitted in the Open Session. Sound familiar? [I will get back to this later.]
After an immediate motion, seconded and then approved by majority vote to go into Executive Session, the Executive Session began at exactly 10:04 a.m. Per the hastily published agenda, the purpose of the Executive Session was to have a “Personnel Discussion / Action: potential Superintendent investigation and related process”. [Emphasis added by this article’s author] Since the School Committee went into Executive Session, I was required to leave the conference room. While waiting in the Administration Building lobby, two other people arrived for the meeting.
At exactly 10:22 a.m., the School Committee Legal Counsel informed the three of us waiting that the School Committee was now in Open Session. In Open Session, there was an immediate motion by Collins to conduct an investigation into the Superintendent’s handling of the South Kingstown schoolteacher notifications pertaining to possible layoffs and to place the South Kingstown Superintendent on immediate paid administrative leave during the pendency of the investigation.[Note: Ms. Stringfellow’s resignation is effective June 30, 2019] The motion was seconded and approved 5-2 with the Ruling Majority [Canter, Markey, Collins, Cummiskey and Northup]voting in favor. Ms. Kate McMahon Macinanti and Ms. Michelle Brousseau opposed the motion. While in Open Session, there was no committee discussion of the motion. As mentioned earlier, the School Committee did not allow public comment during the Public Session. Additionally, the Committee Chair, Canter, reported that there were no votes taken in Executive Session. The Committee then voted and approved to seal the Executive Session Meeting Minutes. The meeting adjourned within about 5 minutes after 10:22 a.m.
I have to admit that at this point nothing the South Kingstown School Committee Ruling Majority does will surprise me. In my opinion, this Ruling Majority [Canter, Markey, Collins, Cummiskey, and Northup] has reached a disgustingly new low. It is also my opinion that this Ruling Majority constitutes the most unethical and least transparent South Kingstown elected body that I have experienced in my 33years living in this town. It took the Ruling Majority only 18 minutes to “discuss” and decide to conduct an investigation into Ms. Stringfellow and to place the most senior member of the South Kingstown School Administration on administrative leave. 18 minutes. 18 minutes to cloud the reputation of a competent, respected and devoted educator who only two years ago was the 2017 Rhode Island Superintendent of the Year.
Is the Ruling Majority seeking retribution against Superintendent Stringfellow? If so why? First, you need to decide for yourself whether this constitutes retribution but I truly believe this is the case, and, in my opinion, is not the first time it has happened. About two years ago, three of the five Ruling Majority [Markey, Northrup and Cummiskey] apparently signed a petition that read “[w]e the undersigned request that the South Kingstown School Committee not renew the contract of Dr. Kristen Stringfellow as we believe a better candidate can be found.” Apparently, at this time there was animus towards the Superintendent that I believe has carried over to this day.
In my opinion, Ms. Stringfellow has created friction with the Ruling Majority by attempting to strike the proper balance among the competing needs and interests of our students, educators and taxpayers. In contrast, I believe the Ruling Majority’s priority is to implement a NEARI union agenda that, in my opinion, places the interests of students second and taxpayers last.
So what happens next? Does the School Committee conduct the investigation? I believe at least three of the Ruling Majority should have recused themselves from voting for this investigation, given their apparent support of the prior petition not to renew the Superintendent’s contract and apparent bias against Ms. Stringfellow. Certainly, these three should recuse themselves from any participation in the investigation and any subsequent decision process. How objective can the School Committee be? Will the School Committee appoint another to conduct the investigation? How objective will this person or group of people be? How costly will this investigation be to the citizens and taxpayers, not just in tax dollars, but also in divisiveness and turmoil to our town?
Also, the basic tenants of any reliable and unbiased investigation require the investigator to conduct the investigation thoroughly, impartially and competently; that the investigator gather/evaluate/consider all relevant evidence, including exculpatory evidence; and that the conclusions and any recommendations are clearly supported by the evidence, and are not based on opinion or conjecture. Can we rely on the School Committee Ruling Majority to meet these standards? I personally doubt it. In addition, what happens if the Ruling Majority votes to withdraw the teacher notices? Will the School Committee issue teacher layoff notices in time? Will the South Kingstown taxpayers be left “holding the bag” if the School Committee fails to issue layoff notices by the statutory deadline?
Your thoughts and answers to the above questions are as good as mine, but South Kingstown voters must hold these elected officials accountable. Of late, I have heard a much-repeated comment: “elections have consequences”. In election year 2020, I hope the South Kingstown voters demonstrate to the School Committee Ruling Majority that, while elections have consequences, the actions and inactions of elected officials also have consequences in subsequent elections.
Bruce Waidler has been a resident of South Kingstown for 33 years. Bruce is an attorney, former small business vice president, a former Department of the Navy Civilian Fraud and Ethics Investigator, and is a Navy Submarine Service veteran. For his work as an Investigator, Bruce received the Department of the Navy’s third highest civilian award and medal, the Meritorious Civilian Service Award, for his leadership, expertise, management achievements and exemplary service to the Department of the Navy.
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