SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. —
After an intense discussion, the South Kingstown School Committee voted 6-0-1 to table a motion brought by member Alycia Collins to terminate legal counsel for the department, Sara Rapport and Whelen, Corrente, Flanders, Kinder and Siket.
“It’s really imperative for the School Committee to trust their legal counsel and count on them to be effective communicators, and to be efficient in their work,” Collins said when bringing the motion, also noting that the other law firm employed by the department would be cheaper.
“I know in this situation, a lot of people have made a lot of noise about the lovely memo that Sara wrote about me. I promise you, I have thick skin,” committee member Sarah Markey said, referring to a memo written by Rapport in 2017 when Markey had attempted to be appointed to the committee.
In the memo, Rapport gave a legal opinion that Markey’s position as an executive with the NEA, the union which represents the district’s teachers, would potentially pose a conflict of interest with her role on the School Committee.
But Markey insisted that had nothing to do with her push to terminate the school department’s relationship with its legal advisors. Rather, she said, it was parents and teachers that want the legal counsel fired because they feel “bullied.”
“I’ve heard from a number of constituents – parents, teachers, that have said to me the way that that law firm operates is not reflective of our values, and I believe that. People are feeling railroaded and bullied, and I just don’t want to be a part of that, can’t in good conscience be a part of that.”
Committee member Emily Cummiskey said her concerns about the legal team relate to “an inability to be objective, especially in regards to discussions regarding teacher issues,” she said, saying other districts are paying significantly less for other law firms.
In contrast, other members of the committee defended the work of legal counsel.
“I have found that the current law firm that we’re using has at every turn put the interests of children first. That’s why I ran for School Committee two years ago and six years ago,” Michelle Brousseau said, saying she had run to put the interests of children first.
Making this change without a full interview process to find a replacement would be a mistake, she said.
“They put the interests of children first, and so I would not vote to replace them, I don’t think it’s a good idea to do this quickly.”
During community comment, many speakers blasted the idea of terminating the legal counsel. “I stand before you tonight greatly concerned about a decision you are contemplating, and how it could have a lasting effect on countless children within the school district,” teacher and parent Rachel Craven told the committee, sharing a story about how her son had been harassed by a teacher by being squirted with a water bottle in the face, as well as witnessing a teacher verbally and physically abusing another student. “My son and many other classmates volunteered to testify in this matter… With this case in appeal at RIDE, this is where you the School Committee come in. It is your job to ensure that the word of these children are not dismissed.”
Law enforcement officer and parent Jason Rameaea also spoke about the legal case, exhorting the committee not to make a decision that might impact the case. “I’ve seen this law firm work diligently over the past year to protect the children of South Kingstown from this abusive educator. This law firm has kept myself and my family apprised of every aspect of these proceedings,” he said, saying the first thing they do when contacting him is ask how his child is doing. “That demonstrates their dedication and devotion to the children of South Kingstown.”
In response, committee Chair Stephanie Canter said she had spoken with legal counsel and found that there would be no cases in jeopardy.
Legal counsel Sara Rapport also asked for a chance to speak about her work.
“The purpose of coming here is to ask you to think carefully before you fire us. I’ve never met you before, I’ve never met Ms. Markey before, and I’ve never met Ms. Northrup before, and we’ve been working for the South Kingstown School Committee for 10 years,” she said, saying she didn’t know it would be on the agenda.
There was also confusion about public comment. Collins had withdrawn her first motion to allow public comment; after Rapport spoke, community comment was closed and Collins made her second attempt at the motion, seconded by Markey. Laughter from the audience followed Markey’s second.
“I’ve also been on that side of the table for a number of years, and I’ve never seen community comment closed with two people standing at the microphone,” member Katherine McMahon Macinanti said, drawing applause from the crowd.
“I think the chair decided on the process which is much more transparent than other agendas. We’re reading it item by item, and so folks can continue to weigh in on the agenda,” Markey said, referring to how Canter had asked for community comment first, then a motion. Laughter again followed Markey’s comments.
Cummiskey then asked that public comment be reopened, saying the right thing to do would be to allow the two people attempting to speak finish their comments.
After those comments, member Jacy Northrup moved to table the motion, saying that she didn’t like the vibe from the people.
“I understand that this case involving those people and that teacher is a very sensitive and important subject, and I don’t want to do even one thing that gummed that up even a little bit,” she said, saying she knew some of the children who testified. “And if I thought for one second that something I did at this table put any one of those kids through one more second of trauma or aggravation or stress or anything, I couldn’t sleep at night.”
The committee then voted 6-0-1 to table the motion until the next meeting, with Brousseau abstaining.