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North Kingstown School Committee chairwoman Erin Earle, left, vice chairman Robert Case, and committee member Jennifer Hoskins are pictured during the committee’s meeting on Jan. 10 at the high school.

NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Harvard Professor Paul Reville, a nationally known expert in school management issues, termed the crisis of confidence in the North Kingstown school system operations “a catastrophic situation and has put the entire system at risk.”

Brown University Professor Kenneth Wong, an authority in governance redesign of school systems, said that the system’s need of four school superintendents in one year — as well as a stream of vacancies in top management — is  “quite unique” when compared to other districts nationwide or in the state.

A retired and long-time superintendent from Rhode Island, Robert Hicks, with over two decades of experience, said that the school system’s operation is “dysfunctional” and needs immediate attention.

“Right now, if North Kingstown goes out looking for a superintendent, who is going to apply for that?” he said referencing the array of management and political problems any leader would walk through the door and face right away in the district.

These three leading education professionals, echoing others in the field of education, said during interviews this week that it is troubling  that the North Kingstown School System has been unable to regain management stability during a year-long crisis.

The School Committee needs either a mediator or outside consultant, they suggested, to help examine the committee’s and administration’s role in possibly prolonging — rather than resolving — a crisis of trust in district officials.

In addition, they suggested there should be a review and understanding of decided-upon boundaries between the superintendent’s and school board’s responsibilities and oversight.

“They need critical friends right now,” said Reville, who is also former Massachusetts Secretary of Education. “It’s just catastrophic what’s happening there and I don’t think there’s a need for it.”

Wong, an advisor to U.S. Secretaries of Education, agreed. “This study needs to be completed promptly and (should) make recommendations on clarifying the boundaries between management/administration and board decision-making authority,” he said.

North Kingstown’s schools were turned upside down during the last two years in the wake of news that a well-respected high school coach was accused of  “fat testing” on naked teen boys for two decades.

Former coach Aaron Thomas did the tests and has since been criminally charged in the matter. He has pleaded not guilty.

The 24-month period since word began spreading about the allegations has seen district officials embroiled in a series of controversial actions, such as initially backing the handling of the Thomas situation prior to the publication of revealing reports on administrators’ knowledge of the situation, the departure of three superintendents in the last 10 months, and a School Committee in August failing to find any candidates after a search for a new permanent superintendent.

The system’s operational wheels also have started to grind very slowly, according to some teachers, because top-level director jobs remain unfilled. Day-to-day management is often going to a superintendent whose hands are already full with other broader responsibilities and budget issues.

The latest situation to draw negative attention to the district was a raw public confrontation between committee Chairwoman Erin Earle and outgoing Superintendent Judy Paolucci last week. Earle, a newcomer to the committee who pitched herself as a visionary leader during her election campaign last fall, said recently that the committee would be more transparent and reflective so that “mistakes of the past” are not repeated.

The Jamestown Town Council, which authorizes more than $2 million for its 141 students to attend North Kingstown High School since the island community does not have one, expressed its concern over the direction of the district.

That town’s school superintendent came to a North Kingstown School Committee meeting January 10 to warn officials that “Jamestown officials and community members … are very concerned about the education for their students as a result of the most recent events.”

Robert Hicks has over 20 years of experience as a superintendent in Rhode Island, serving as a district leader in South Kingstown, Block Island and Exeter-West Greenwich.

He’s seen first-hand a similar situation to what North Kingstown’s school district now faces.

“The question before the School Committee is: How will they make it a place a very qualified person will want to go?” he said, noting that South Kingstown had a turnover and other troubles when he took that job many years ago.

“When I came to SK, the School Committee said, “We’re a mess, we’re part of the problem and help us fix it,’” Hicks said.

That is a point strongly pushed by Harvard’s Reville, who also chaired the Massachusetts State Board of Education.

“They need outside people to come in and help them evaluate the process and evaluate themselves and their contributions to the difficulties,” he said.

“An outside consultant can help to objectively analyze the problem and the first order is to see how the many different people involved caused the problem and their own responsibility in some ways,” he said.

“You aren’t going to be able to solve the process until you can name it,” Reville added, and noted, “It’s obviously a toxic situation that needs an urgent remedy.”

He said that the continuing crisis would cause a cascading problem with reputational stigma and “who would want to work in a district with those kinds of issues? That can lead to getting inferior or less optimum candidates to hire when you need optimum.”

He called the problems, compared to others nationally, as “exceptional. The rate of turnover is exceptional.”

Wong said, “Across the nation, the average tenure for school superintendents is about 2.5 years. The recent situation in North Kingstown is quite unique.”

He said that an independent team, whether an outside consultant or from the Rhode Island Department of Education, can kick off the recovery efforts that this town and its School Committee needs.

It can examine the relationship between the board and the superintendent. It needs to be completed swiftly to recommend the lines between management and administration and board decision-making authority, he said.

“Findings and recommendations of this study will be helpful for the search for the permanent superintendent,” he said. He also said that the School Committee needs a formal airing of the situation at hand.

“A community forum organized by the school board (or jointly organized by the board and other publicly elected officials) to provide an opportunity for community feedback on the issue of superintendency” is one approach, Wong said.

“Parents, for example, will have the opportunity to share their views on the effects of superintendent turnover on their children’s learning opportunities over the year.  Teachers and principals could talk about the superintendent’s role in shaping their work,” he said.

The professor noted that shortly following the community forum, the school board and the district administration should jointly issue a response to the feedback.

He also referenced ethical issues raised by both former interim Superintendent Judy Paolucci and new School Board Chairwoman Erin Earle when both discussed problems with each other’s handling of some school matters.

“The board may consider setting up — or strengthening if one already exists — a committee whose functions include conflict of interest, audit, ethics, and professional conduct,” he said.

Katherine Sipala, who is now temporarily serving as interim superintendent in North Kingstown and has experience working in a troubled school system, would not answer questions about the district’s path forward or the school committee-superintendent working relationship.

Political leaders in town, however, say the School Committee and Sipala are attempting to handle multiple crises the best they can, manage the district and policy making, and understand evolving roles.

All of this happened within two months after voters elected two new members to join three existing people on the five-member board. The former chairman did not seek re-election and that opened the door for Earle to take that leadership role.

At the January 10 regular School Committee meeting, Chairwoman Erin Earle briefly addressed the crisis with revolving-door superintendents, but did not provide specifics on a broader plan to address the crisis of confidence in the system due to myrid other problems

“As recent events have unfolded, it is clear that the relationship between the superintendent and the school committee needs to change and I think that is on both sides of trying to figure out a way to work together,” she said.

In addition, she said that she and the committee “are going to work our hardest to bring the leadership and transparency” to the district.

“I believe that there’s a path forward that will really restore confidence in the school department leadership as well as the school committee. (We) may certainly have some additional bumps along the way, but we truly I truly believe that we will emerge a stronger school department in the future,” she said.

Write to Bill Seymour, freelance writer covering news and feature stories, at independent.southcountylife@gmail.com.

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