SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — While the South Kingstown Town Council held its first meeting Nov. 26, the majority of public comment concerned the newly elected School Committee, and one member in particular.
During public comment, former Councilor Jim O’Neill directly asked Town Solicitor Mike Ursillo about newly elected School Committee member Sarah Markey, who is also a high-level official of NEARI, the union which represents school teachers in South Kingstown and throughout the state.
Ursillo responded by saying he concurred with a memo written by School Committee legal counsel Sara Rapport written when Markey had applied for an open position on the committee in 2017, though he noted he is not the committee’s counsel. “But in my opinion, she needs to seek an advisory opinion from the Ethics Commission to find out what she can and cannot vote on,” he said, saying only the Ethics Commission can give her a binding opinion on what she submits. He noted executive director of the Ethics Commission Jason Grammit said Markey would be treated as a day job working for the union, and the Ethics Commission would respond.
While Ursillo said he wasn’t passing the buck, he noted that the Ethics Commission needed to rule. “They’re the ones who need to make those decisions based upon her setting out what exactly her job responsibilities are and how that would interact with her position on the School Committee,” he said, saying the commission will ask a number of questions. “It’s by no means a rubber stamp. It is substantive, it is detailed, and it gets into the weeds because if you’ve ever read one of those decisions, they are very detailed.”
O’Neill also asked about Markey’s position as vice chair, and how it would interact with a recusal from a vote. “If you have to recuse yourself from any topic, you have to do that at the very beginning,” Ursillo responded. “You cannot be involved in directing or making any public comment. At the very beginning of the topic, you have to announce your recusal.”
Former School Committee member Jonathan Daly-Labelle later defended Markey, saying that there were a lot of aspersions being cast on a recently elected member. “This is a duly elected person who’s really coming in, replacing people who were not duly elected. So I think give the School Committee some time, there’s been a commitment to recuse as needed and to look into where that will be needed,” he said.
Labelle also attacked an article written in GoLocalProv, in which Councilor Bryant Da Cruz was quoted heavily. “I’d like to see the Town Council and School Committee be able to have some collaboration and communication, and when you’re going with kind of a questionable news site, GoLocalProv to communicate concerns, it just doesn’t seem very appropriate,” he said. “I also wish that had been brought up more clearly before the election because the person who had those concerns may have had a much lower vote total. Sarah Markey was the second highest vote-getter.”
No councilors responded after the conclusion of public comment.
Another issue relating to the School Committee was brought up during public comment, with Contingency Committee member Jason Ralph expressing concern that the committee, which focuses on the conditions that may affect the school’s facility and legacy planning, would be dissolved. “Tracking and predicting ebbs and flows of family migration into town is a difficult task. The contingency committee was formed to track enrollment, utilization of facilities and macroeconomic trends that can affect enrollment,” he said, saying the new school committee may determine the data brought in is unnecessary. “Regardless, the work that we’re doing is important and I feel we can provide immense value to the town as the family migration required to support four elementary schools will require substantial action and planning on our part.”
In the town manager’s report, Town Manager Robert Zarnetske said he had spoken to Economic Development Committee chair Larry Fish, and that he was amenable to potentially re-creating the Contingency Committee as a subcommittee.