I would like to comment on several things that occurred at the North Kingstown School Committee meeting last week.
First is the incessant and repetitious questioning by committee members Bill Mudge and Melvoid Benson about the â€śCitizenâ€™s Commentsâ€ť section of the agenda. At practically every school meeting I attend, Mr. Mudge and Mrs. Benson challenge Chairperson Kim Page and legal counsel Mary Ann Carroll about the law and policy governing citizen comments.
Mrs. Benson offered a motion that would allow â€śfree and open discussionâ€ť during citizen comments. This was seconded by Mr. Mudge. Apparently this was an attempt to circumvent the announcement by Chairperson Kim Page that comments would be limited to three minutes per speaker. I say apparently because Vice Chairman Dick Welch asked Mrs. Benson for clarification and didnâ€™t really get an answer.
I believe there were seven union leaders and members who signed up to speak against the outsourcing of custodial services. Seemingly lost on Mrs. Benson was the possibility that without a time limit each of those speakers could have turned the evening into a union filibuster and nothing else would have been accomplished at the meeting.
Mr. Mudge always seems to feel the need to â€śclarifyâ€ť or â€śchallengeâ€ť the comments made by citizens. Over and over again Attorney Carroll has told him that citizenâ€™s comments is not the same as a â€ścitizenâ€™s forumâ€ť. If the agenda allows for citizenâ€™s comments, it is time for the committee to listen â€“not to discuss, debate, interrogate or clarify.
Last week Mrs. Benson wanted to know what state law has to say about the matter. Attorney Carroll explained that nothing in state law requires that citizenâ€™s comments be put on the agenda but that in North Kingstown the school committee, policy over the years has been to allow brief citizenâ€™s comments during a meeting.
Attorney Carroll explained for the umpteenth time that â€śSchool committee meetings are open to the public. They are not meetings with the public.â€ť I sincerely hope that Mr. Mudge and Mrs. Benson get the message and stop wasting the committeeâ€™s and the publicâ€™s time going over and over the same line of questioning. I suspect this is a reason some members of the town council have described the school committee as â€śdysfunctionalâ€ť.
Next, the presence of union activists including heavy hitters NEARI president Larry Purtill and chief lobbyist Patrick Crowley, and the dean of organized labor in Rhode Island, AFL-CIO president George Nee who led off citizen comments. ESP bargaining unit president Nancy Ferenko and teachersâ€™ union building rep Kevin Dubois also spoke. They were joined by a couple of paraprofessionals supported by union activists from the steelworkers, electricians and firefighters, including North Kingstownâ€™s, easily identifiable by their tee-shirts and the yellow placards they kept waving.
The union comments followed the same talking points I have previously written about. This time, however, they were delivered against the backdrop of the denial by Superior Court Judge David Stern of the ESP request for a temporary or permanent injunction against the outsourcing of custodial services. Judge Stern ruled that the decrease in hourly pay for custodians may result in â€śfinancial hardshipâ€ť but that doesnâ€™t rise to the level of â€śirreparable harmâ€ť that an injunction requires.
One of the paraprofessionals said she didnâ€™t plan on speaking but she had to comment on the condition of the high school building particularly the â€śawful smellâ€ť and â€śblack scuff marksâ€ť on the floor. As a â€śparaâ€ť she spends summers at home and would be unfamiliar with the odor of the solution used to strip the floors of old wax before new wax is applied and the floor buffed.
The scuffed floor outside the high school auditorium was probably due to the fact that the custodians hadnâ€™t got to strip and wax that section of floor yet. Most of the districtâ€™s custodians accepted employment with the new contractor so the summer work is being done by essentially the same personnel. If the work is below prior standards it is probably because the union has told the custodians to slow down thereby creating a crisis and bad publicity around the time school is supposed to start.
If the new vendor disciplines or terminates custodians who are not doing the same quality work within the same timeframe as when they were employed by the district, the union will use that to bludgeon the school committee some more.
One thing was particularly onerous. Committee member Lynda Avanzato called Mel Bensonâ€™s attention to a picture and article about the high school jazz band playing at the Newport Jazz Festival. As Mrs. Avanzato folded the newspaper to hand to Mrs. Benson, NEARIâ€™s Patrick Crowley raced up and took a picture with his smart phone which made it appear that Avanzato was reading the paper during the meeting. Crowley then came back with a smirk on his face showing the image to the unionistas around him most of whom agreed â€śThatâ€™s greatâ€ť. I expect the picture will show up in the NEARI â€śNewslineâ€ť.
Finally, there was an announcement by Mary King, the districtâ€™s new director of administration, that the school department ran a $460 thousand surplus for the fiscal year that ended June 30th. This number is subject to verification by the townâ€™s new independent auditing firm.
Recall that in December Town Manager Mike Embery and Finance Director Trish Sunderland sued the school committee and Superintendent of Schools Phil Auger over the districtâ€™s projected deficit of $1.2 million. Mr. Embury got the unanimous approval of the town council to engage Attorney Dan Kinder as special counsel and CPA Jeff Wadovick to conduct a special examination of the school departmentâ€™s financial condition with an emphasis on the cost of the stateâ€™s basic education plan (â€śBEPâ€ť).
I have written about this fiasco several times in the past. Last week my opinion was reinforced by a letter to the editor from school committee vice chairman and candidate for town council Dick Welch.
Under an Access to Public Records Act request, Mr. Welch learned that Mr. Kinderâ€™s firm charged the town $70,630 and Mr. Wadovickâ€™s nearly $26,000. To defend the suit the school department spent $26,306 supported by an estimated $6,303 in administration staff time. Mr. Embery reported that town hall employees donâ€™t keep track of their time by project.
Thatâ€™s over $130,000 for what? Iâ€™m waiting for someone on the town council to ask that question.
Superintendent Auger says the projected deficit was overcome by lower costs of heating, snow removal and utilities. I heard former director of administration Ned Draper say under oath in court that the main reason was the use of temporary employees rather than full-time hires which saved about half a million dollars.
Whatever the reason, itâ€™s a good thing the surplus number wasnâ€™t revealed until after most of the union leaders and members left the auditorium last week.
Richard August is a North Kingstown resident and a regular contributor to the Standard Times. He served for six years on North Kingstownâ€™s Audit Committee and was its chairman for the last two. His opinions are his own.