2016-08-18 / Front Page

Workshop Offers Insights

By Lynne Tungett

Readying for the upcoming academic year, members of the Newport School Committee entered a classroom last week ready to learn. They convened for “School Committee 101,” a workshop that at times seemed like a civics class with an emphasis on Rhode Island statutes and the delineation of the powers and duties of the superintendent and the committee.

The discussion and PowerPoint presentation, similar to one offered last November by the Rhode Island Association of School Committees (RIASC) to newly elected school committees statewide, was led by Benjamin Scungio and Mary Ann Carroll from the Providence-based law firm of Brennan, Recupero, Cascione, Scungio and McAllister, whose practice areas include education and municipal law.

In addition to the seven current School Committee members, four of the five challenging candidates running for school seats this year were present: Raymond Gomes, Jennifer Jackson, Hank Kniskern and Thomas Phelan. The fifth, Adrienne Haylor, was out of town and unable to attend.

School Superintendent Colleen Jermain and the department’s Di- rector of Administrative Services Joan Tracey were present. Neil Galvin, school department legal counsel, was away on vacation. Also in attendance were Sav Rebecchi, who is running as an independent opposite Teresa Paiva Weed in Senate District 12, and Ken Nomiyama, chair of the Newport schools’ Strategic Plan Subcommittee.

Of the two-hour gathering, Jermain said, “I think it was a very informative evening. There were lots of good questions and the legal team did a nice job of helping members understand roles and responsibilities.”

Much of the session, which the district paid $1,500 for, was devoting to a discussion of three major state statutes relating to the roles of school committees and superintendents: Rhode Island General Laws § 16-2-9, which outlines the general powers and duties of school committees; § 16-2-11, general powers and duties of superintendents; and § 16-2-9.1, the code of basic management principles and ethical school standards for school committees.

One of the first points brought up by Scungio was, “The ‘real’ school committee is the General Assembly. They may pass statutes we don’t like, and the Rhode Island Department of Education has a lot of regulations too, but it’s the General Assembly who can give school committees rights and take away rights.”

Scungio has represented the Middletown School District during teacher and teacher aide labor negotiations and throughout the controversial investigation launched by Town Council into a $1 million laptop purchase.

One statutory provision providing that the “entire care, control and management of public school interests shall be vested in local school committees” prompted a question from School Committee member Robert Leary. “Is it correct then that the city owns all the schools? We signed over a school last year for $1.”

Carroll responded, “The city is the landlords of schools. Yes, the committee has control and custody; you run buildings day by day, but by state statute the city is the landlord.”

Another topic for clarification was the requirements of the open meetings law versus matters that should be handled in executive session. Personal issues, especially anything dealing with character or mental health, should be dealt with in executive session, as should all personnel matters, the attorneys said. Extra warning was also given to the committee to not deal with special education cases.

The section of the workshop pertaining to powers and duties of the superintendent, eight PowerPoint slides out of 43, listed 17 superintendent responsibilities. Three that were singled out were that the superintendent (1) appoints all school department personnel with the consent of the school committee; (2) oversees the care, control, and management of school facilities and equipment; and (3) provides for the evaluation of department personnel.

Hiring and firing practices were only briefly discussed, with Carroll, who Newport brings on as counsel for labor negotiations, emphasizing that, “The superintendent makes recommendations for appointments. The committee can then vote yes or no, but if the committee says no then the super has to bring them another name.”

On financial matters, the workshop leaders professed that budgets are to be considered “flexible, not static, documents and as a result changes are made during the year.” When asked about Newport’s annual school budget, all committee members chimed in unison that is was $39 million.

Jermain remarked that she can move $4,000 between accounts. Carroll expressed surprise, as most communities authorize the superintendent to move $10,000 to $15,000. Jermain and Tracey said the administration ensures there is no deficit spending and that the committee is notified every month of any changes in the budget.

Committee member Rebecca Bolan told Newport This Week, “It was gratifying to hear their number one piece of financial advice for board members, something that I have tried to advocate for years, that it is never a good idea to use surpluses or one-time monies to plug a gap in the school district budget. It kicks the can further down the road and the following year you have a much bigger problem trying to fix an already tight budget. It will and does catch up with you.”

One of Carroll’s messages was that the school committee’s “main job is to advocate for education. There are plenty of other people ready, willing and able to cut your budget.” To that, Leary, a former teacher, objected and said he feels he has to balance on a three-legged stool, advocating not only for students but also for taxpayers and teachers.

Committee member David Carlin concurred and later said, “One of the biggest takeaways I had with the facilitators was to tell us that it is not a responsibility for a School Committee member to advocate for taxpayers.” He added, “Actually, I think it is an insult to taxpayers that this school leadership session was held now. It should have been held after the election.”

RIASC is planning to again offer School Committee 101 in Warwick in December.

Return to top