SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — After the vote was initially tabled at its Nov. 27 meeting, the South Kingstown School Committee held a special Friday night meeting on Nov. 29 to terminate legal counsel Sara Rapport and the law firm of Whelen, Corrente, Flanders, Kinder and Siket.
The motion was changed from its original wording, which would have terminated legal counsel fully, to terminating any new casework done by the firm while allowing continuance of existing pending litigation on a case-by-case basis as determined by the School Committee chair. The motion also puts in place the legal firm Henneous, Carroll and Lombardo on an interim basis.
Both the amended motion and full motion were approved 5-2, with Chairwoman Stephanie Canter, Vice Chairwoman Sarah Markey and committee members Alycia Collins, Emily Cummiskey and Jacy Northrup in favor. Members Michelle Brousseau and Katherine McMahon Macinanti were opposed.
While Cummiskey said she was “extremely uncomfortable” with the process that got the committee to a vote that night, she agreed with the end goal. “The way that this looks, I know it looks bad. It does look bad and there’s no ifs, ands or buts about it,” she said.
Cummiskey said she had done her due diligence in researching it, and have answered multiple emails and phone calls, including reaching out to two different legal counsels on her own accord. She spoke about an incident where she claimed to have received a threatening phone call about the committee’s maneuverings.
Brousseau was sharply critical of the process involved with getting a vote on Nov. 29 — just days after the committee had met for the first time. “I don’t understand if the chair is interested in vetting other law firms, I believe you said sometime in Jan… I don’t understand the rush on this,” she said, saying the meeting was called in a hasty and disrespectful manner. Brousseau said she found out when the meeting was called after seeing the agenda posted.
Brousseau also called the meeting “disrespectful and almost abusive” to the school staff, saying the staff had to rush off to Town Hall to ensure the meeting was posted so they wouldn’t be in violation of open meetings laws. “I have been very pleased with the way our current legal team has represented our children. They have shown to me they have been putting children first. My opinion on that has not changed since Tuesday night,” she said, asking why it couldn’t be changed in a transparent manner. “If we’re going to vet new counsel, it’s December tomorrow. We could vet new counsel in January after the budget is complete… The counsel the chair and other members of the School Committee are looking at is less expensive. Fold that into the budget discussion where it belongs.”
Macinanti also criticized the meeting, saying they had didn’t receive any documentation on the two legal firms until just hours before the vote. “In my opinion, we have not had sufficient time to review both parties. Even before that point, however, we don’t know if anybody at our table has conflict of interest with our current counsel, we don’t know if anybody at our table has conflict of interest with the other legal counsel, we haven’t had a chance to vet any of those pieces,” she said, saying she had positive experiences with the current legal counsel and that she was not aware of any formal complaints put out against the counsel. “I cannot in good conscience approve any sort of verbiage that would insinuate us terminating their services without proper vetting.”
Collins, who had worked with legal counsel Sara Rapport for the past two years and on teacher contracts, said Rapport’s style was in contrast to the teachers’ collaborative style. “We have some of the best teachers in the state of Rhode Island here in South Kingstown, and Sara spoke condescendingly towards our teachers and oftentimes with contempt, to some of our most beloved teachers,” she said, saying that’s not something the community wants. She also later said there had been official complaints, though she did not wish to discuss them publicly.
Collins also said legal counsels change in other communities at the cities and towns level. “I understand that Bryant Da Cruz and other individuals have called into some shock jocks and really stirred this situation up, and there are folks that are very disappointed in the election results and they’re sort of combining that anger into making this a bigger deal than it is,” she said, referring to the Dan Yorke Show and Town Councilor Bryant Da Cruz. “With that, I think we can move on.”