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SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — The vice-chairwoman of the South Kingstown School Committee is the subject of a investigation by the state Ethics Commission, on the basis of a complaint stating that as an employee with the National Education Association of Rhode Island, she should have recused herself from committee discussions with leaders of the local teachers’ union.

The complaint filed by Deborah Bergner says that Sarah Markey did not remove herself from such discussions on seven occasions between Dec. 11, 2018 and May 14 of this year.

At two other times, both on April 9, she recused herself but did not leave the room, Bergner’s complaint says.

The Ethics Commission met behind closed doors about the matter June 18 and voted to proceed with the investigation.

Markey posted the complaint on her own Sarah Markey for South Kingstown School Committee page on Facebook.

“Today the Ethics Commission voted to investigate a complaint filed against me,” she wrote. “I’m a fan of transparency so sharing the complaint here so everyone has access to it. I’m hopeful that an investigation will clear this up and confident that there has been no violation of the ethics statute. The complaint has a number of inaccurate statements, but that’s for the Commission to review and this won’t be resolved via social media debate. Thanks so much to everyone who has reached out with words of support!”

Bergner’s complaint stems from instances when NEASK President Brian Nelson and Vice-President Mick Lefort appeared before the committee.

Among Nelson’s appearances, he “presented the position of the bargaining unit regarding the school calendar” (Dec. 11), “presented concerns about working conditions under  the new facility plans and their importance to the teaching community” (Jan. 10), “presented concerns and requested actions by the committee regarding Personnel Action Team policy” (Feb. 12), “presented concerns to a joint budget session with the Town Council and School Committee present” (March 13), “presented support for the new PAT process” (April 9) and “discussed implications of the new PAT process” (May 14).

Lefort also presented clarifications about the PAT process April 9 – the date Markey recused herself from discussions – and on Feb. 12 he “presented concerns about Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Program while advocating for a reduction in administrative staff” and “presented results of a bargaining unit survey regarding Teacher’s College that he had emailed to the School Committee.”

Bergner cites state law and an earlier ethics advisory opinion that Markey sought, arguing that she “should recuse herself from participation in the discussion of any matter related to NEARI and any NEARI-associated individuals that appear before the School Committee.”

The Ethics Commission issued the earlier opinion Jan. 8 after Markey inquired whether the Code of Ethics restricts her participation in various School Committee matters given her employment with the National Education Association of Rhode Island as an assistant executive director.

The commission ruled that Markey “is prohibited by the Code of Ethics from participating in School Committee matters relating to the negotiation and approval of school department contracts with NEARI local bargaining units, and also must recuse from participation in grievance hearings involving NEARI members.”

Markey said that her responsibilities as an NEARI employee involve working with 10 local bargaining units across Rhode Island, but she is not assigned to work with local bargaining units representing employees of the South Kingstown School Department.  

“Here, the Petitioner has already indicated that she will not participate in the School Committee’s contract negotiations with NEARI bargaining units,” the commission wrote. “In short, the Petitioner must recuse from all aspects of the School Committee’s contract negotiating process with NEARI.”

The commission also ruled on when a recusal isn’t necessary.

“However, the Petitioner is not prohibited from participating in discussions and voting relative to decisions involving budgets, facilities, administration evaluation and contracts, personnel appointments and leave, and staff lay-offs, provided that NEARI is not a party or participant to the matter before the School Committee, and further provided that there is no reasonably foreseeable direct monetary gain or loss to NEARI,” it ruled.

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