SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Former Superintendent of Schools Kristen Stringfellow said the report commissioned by the School Committee to look into how she issued notices of potential teacher layoffs was politically motivated retaliation after she took a new position as head of schools in Norwich, Connecticut.
On Aug. 23, Stringfellow released a 26-page response to the committee’s report by Providence attorney Charles Ruggerio, released two weeks ago. The Stringfellow document is available at www.independentri.com. The committee’s report is online on the school’s Board Docs site.
“I had made a choice to remain silent about my concerns for the South Kingstown School Department,” Stringfellow said in her response.
But she said she was contacted Aug. 14 by a Connecticut newspaper that said it received a copy of the report from School Committee Chairwoman Stephanie Canter and asking Stringfellow to comment on the document.
Canter said last week that the committee would have no further comment on the matter. The committee had voted Aug. 13 to make the report public on Board Docs the next morning.
“To say the least, I was stunned,” Stringfellow said. “I was no longer a South Kingstown employee, and I am extremely happy in my position in Norwich. I had moved on. I devoted a decade of my life to the students of South Kingstown and significant positive change occurred during that time. I am convinced that this ‘investigation’ of the normal teacher notification process was undertaken in retaliation for my accepting the position in Norwich.”
Her detailed response includes information on her personal and professional background, a history of how staff layoffs have taken place during her tenure in South Kingstown, a timeline of this year’s budget process and personnel talks, and key policies and laws Stringfellow said are missing from the Ruggerio report.
It also includes 20 responses to “erroneous assertions made in the report” and text message exchanges with Canter and another committee member, Emily Cummiskey, and e-mail from NEA-SK Teachers’ Union President Brian Nelson to staff and from Canter to staff and families, both on April 22.
“I complied with all laws, applicable policies and the (collective bargaining agreement) when I sent Open Meeting Act Notices to certain teachers on April 19 consistent with past practice,” Stringfellow said. “These notices informed the teacher that the School Committee would be discussing his or her employment in executive session, but that the discussion would take place in open session if the teacher so requested. Such School Committee discussions could not take place unless the OMA Notice had been given. These were not termination notices since only the School Committee has the authority to terminate teachers under Rhode Island law. These OMA Notices simply provided the School Committee with the options it needed to make personnel decisions at its May 14 meeting, nothing more.”
Stringfellow’s timeline notes that on April 9, the committee changed a key Personnel Assignment Team policy abruptly and by suspending its bylaws that require two public readings before passage. She said that was the first time she saw the changed PAT policy.
She said she sent the notices on April 19 “in alignment with the PAT Committee agreed upon timeline,” and the next day “emailed a heads up to the (School Committee) to let them know that the OMA letters were sent and reminding them that they are not notices of layoff. I sent the email as a courtesy because three of the School Committee members have not participated before and two School Committee members only participated once after being appointed mid-year.”
It also shows that on April 24, after Stringfellow submitted her resignation notice at 7 a.m., Canter and the committee’s attorney Andrew Henneous canceled a meeting about the OMA notices planned for the next day, and instead said the committee would meet April 26 to discuss her job performance.
At that meeting, the committee voted 5-2 to place her on paid administrative leave. The committee hired Ruggerio to investigate on May 3.
A meeting had been set up for May 14 with the School Committee to discuss layoffs, Stringfellow said. The OMA notices were required by state law as a precursor to those talks.
“The intent of the OMA noticing is to notify teachers they would be discussed in executive session by the Committee. It is not the notice of termination voted on by the Committee as that is a separate letter sent by the SC Chair,” she said.
The change in the PAT policy on April 9 also forced Stringfellow to hastily compile a “vacancy list” over April vacation. Such a task usually took two months and was due in June, she said.
“If/when the SC changed the lists on May 14 this vacancy list could be amended (as it was by the SC and Interim Superintendent [Robert] Hicks). I shared this all with Charles Ruggerio during our telephone interview but it was not mentioned in his report,” she said.
She challenged Ruggerio’s finding of “negligence” in sending out the notices, which she said followed the same process as in previous years.
“Negligence is a very strong and in this case, inaccurate word that I take deep issue with,” she said. “I spent an entire week (day and night) working on these lists to make sure they were accurate. No evidence to date has shown they were not accurate. It is unfair and inaccurate to compare Interim Superintendent Hicks’ list of May 28 with my list of April 19 since the Hicks list was compiled with the knowledge that there would be no referendum, with significant changes in the budget cuts, and with more current information on teacher retirements, resignations, and leaves of absence.”
Stringfellow concluded her response by reiterating she operated according to law, town policies and collective bargaining agreements.
“This ‘investigation’ was undertaken in retaliation for me moving to my new assignment in Norwich. I trust that this response has now set the record straight. I wish the students, families, teachers and administrators the very best as they transition into the future.”