2016-06-16 / Front Page

Change-up of School Leaders

By James Merolla

After the Newport School Committee’s approval of an unusual resolution that restructures several administrative roles, Committee Chair Jo Eva Gaines said on Wednesday, June 15, that she would ask state education officials to rule on the action’s legality.

By a 4-3 vote on Tuesday, June 14, the panel approved a motion originating with committee member David Carlin that reassigns Rogers High School Principal Jeffrey Goss to be the district’s assistant superintendent, a job to then be recast as the “director of curriculum.”

Carlin’s motion continued, “The superintendent of the Newport Public School System is hereby prohibited from moving forward with the interviewing, hiring and any/ all other personnel actions related to the position of assistant superintendent.”

Meanwhile, the measure directs that Rogers Assistant Principal Christianne Fisher will become interim principal. The assistant principal position is evidently being eliminated.

Robert Young, the director of the Pathways in Technology Early College High School (PTECH) program, will also officially assume responsibility for the Newport Area Career and Technical Center (NACTC) after already acting in that capacity.

The move by Carlin – who is often at odds with the administration over spending priorities – seemed to take Superintendent Colleen Jermain and the committee by surprise. Moreover, the members voting to approve – Carlin, Rebecca Bolan, David Hanos, and Robert Leary – did not speak to the rationale underlying the resolution, although its wording specifies that it is “an effort to provide for the most efficient and effective delivery of education.”

“I don’t know what the motivation is for this,” said Gaines.

“I think the motion speaks for itself,” Carlin said at the meeting.

In later comments to Newport This Week, Carlin elaborated on his intentions and noted that it has its origins with the retirement of current Assistant Superintendent Jennifer Booth.

“I would not have suggested this if [Booth] had not decided to retire, but I thought we should take advantage of the opportunity to save the district some money,” he said. “I believe that we are able to do the necessary work that the district requires without adding more staff.”

By Carlin’s count, the district has brought on more than 30 new employees since July 1, 2014. “That’s an awful lot,” he said. “Districts have to make important decisions with respect to what these hires are for. Are they leading to the delivery of great education? Are students benefiting from these hires?”

He also shared his alarm about four percent budget increases being requested yearly from city taxpayers. Taxpayers are not a “money tree” he said. “Resources are not limitless. I want to assure taxpayers that we as a district are not just going to automatically go back to them each year asking for more money.”

In a telephone conversation, Gaines told Newport This Week that she plans to file a formal complaint with the state Department of Education.

“The vote that was taken was not done according to Rhode Island law,” Gaines said. “The superintendent runs the district. The School Committee sets policy. We do not run the district. That’s the superintendent’s job. We do not assign personnel. That’s the superintendent’s job. So I want to get a ruling from the Department of Education as to whether or not this was a legal, legitimate vote.”

“I think the proposal is outrageous and is against state law,” committee member Kathleen Silvia said on Tuesday. “I wish it would be withdrawn.” The School Department’s legal counsel did not attend the monthly meeting.

For his part, Carlin rebuffed any concerns about the legality of the resolution. “These moves are both allowable and appropriate. And there are all sorts of ways that one can interpret state statutes and education regulations. There will always be people on opposite sides of an issue.”

Jermain said on Wednesday that she expected there to be further conversations about the committee’s vote.

“I would imagine that some may want to revisit it,” Jermain said. “I just got the sense after the meeting that most likely this topic is not over and will come up again. I believe that Mrs. Gaines is making sure that everything that happened last night was legal.”

The superintendent said that Rhode Island law clearly delineates the powers of the superintendent in ยง 16-2-11 of the Rhode Island General Laws.

At the committee meeting, Jermain expressed her disappointment in the evening’s developments.

“We wanted the high school to flourish. We did that. When I first arrived here, some people thought I wanted to close Rogers High School. That was the last thing I wanted to do,” said the superintendent.

“I sit here right now, I see this proposal, and wonder what is next. Is it going to be the middle school? Teachers’ structures? Department chairs?... I can’t imagine how people could support this. How can people come in and arbitrarily change our structure?”

“This will eliminate an assistant principal position and will bring down the assistant superintendent to a director of learning. Why would we eliminate positions when we have built a structure to improve the Newport school system?” Jermain asked, citing ongoing successes with NACTC and graduation rates as evidence of the district’s progress.

Gaines spoke of unnamed “personal motives” behind the action that would “undermine” Jermain’s authority.

“It is egregious. It appears that there is a personal agenda here,” said committee member Sandra Flowers. Teachers at the meeting were abuzz, but would not comment. Many suspected that the committee could be overstepping its authority in taking the action.

Consistent with their comments, Gaines, Flowers and Silvia opposed the motion.

“I hope you don’t leave us. If you do, I understand,” Gaines said to Jermain.

“I think that is an inappropriate comment,” said Hanos. “We are elected officials. I find that a little bit disrespectful. I hope you respect our opinions. We respect yours. We volunteer our time for many long hours, many long months to do what we think is best for the schools.”

The measure takes effect on July 11 of this year and by its own terms expires on June 30, 2017. It effectively halts the interview process that has been ongoing to replace Booth as assistant superintendent.

“The sunset date was included so that we can later take a look at the new structure to ensure that it is working,” Carlin told Newport This Week. “If it doesn’t work, we’ll rearrange it. But I believe we have the resources to accomplish this.”

--With additional reporting by Tom Walsh and Barry Bridges

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