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NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Despite neither the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Subcommittee or any potential mask mandate for students being on the agenda Tuesday night, they dominated the conversation during the first North Kingstown School Committee meeting of the 2021-22 school year.

Nearly 30 community members spoke during the public comment section, taking up much of the roughly two hour meeting. Much of the conversation surrounded School Committee member Jen Lima after a group of town residents filed a petition to recall the first term committee member on July 30, accusing her of “fail(ing) to put the North Kingstown School Department — as well as students, parents and teacher — above her individual views” and having “publicly stated an opinion which is not representative of the views of her constituents.” 

Lima is a co-founder of both the activist group Towards an Anti-Racist North Kingstown (TANK) and the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Subcommittee, which she helped develop earlier this year along with Assistant Superintendent Denise Mancieri and North Kingstown School Department Human Resources Director Brian Lally “to ensure that students have equitable access to educational opportunities that help them achieve their full potential while supporting and harnessing their individuality as well as the history and backgrounds of their families and the entire North Kingstown community,” as their mission statement reads. So far, the subcommittee has met twice, both of which occurred in the spring. 

About seven community members spoke out against Lima and the DEI, calling the organization a waste of taxpayer resources and arguing that there is no real systematic racism in North Kingstown, and that they should instead be focused on tackling issues such as teen alcohol and drug usage. Many also accused the organization and Lima of trying to implement Critical Race Theory, the legal and academic theory that teaches that the American justice system is set up to work against people of color in order to uphold the interests of white people. Parents argued that Lima’s group is attempting to indoctrinate students with an “anti-American ideology” that would only lead to more hatred of their nation and each other. 

Some also accused the DEI of rejecting more conservative voices and demanded to see the results of the subcommittee’s selection process.

About 12 community members spoke in support of Lima, who received the most votes out of any candidate for both School Committee and Town Council last November, as well as the DEI, calling the subcommittee “greatly needed” to address the issues of systematic racism and discrimination and praising Lima for her work to make students of all backgrounds feel included and welcomed. 

One community member took a more middle ground, saying that he thought good points were raised by people on both sides of the issue, and that while he agreed with some of the criticisms against Lima, he found the notion of recalling her a waste of time and expressed his concern with local politics falling victim to “tribalism.”

Around eight community members also spoke against any potential mask mandate, arguing that the choice to wear a mask this school year should be up to the parents or students old enough to make the decision on their own and not dictated by the school department or state or federal government and that mask wearing was having a negative impact on both the physical and mental health of their children, especially younger ones.

Superintendent Phil Auger touched on the mask issue during his report, citing an email he sent out to parents earlier this week.

“We’re seeing conditions change rapidly and so are the recommendations from the CDC, RIDOH and the American Pediatrics Association, all of which I’ve heard from in the last few days,” Auger said. “We’re putting (our plan) together. It’s not an easy process and there are a lot of pieces to this, so we want to make sure we get it right and make it clear and communicate it well.”

Auger said he planned on doing so when they post their agenda next week for the next School Committee, which is scheduled for Aug. 24.

“That will give people plenty of time to see it before the next meeting and frame any comments you may have for citizens’ comments,” Auger said.

As for the evening’s agenda, the School Committee unanimously approved all decisions which came before them, including a proposal first brought by the NKHS Booster Club to rename the high school’s turf field inside the  Anthony C. Perry Athletic Complex “Dick Fossa Memorial Field” in honor of the late athletic director, a decision which received a wide round of applause from the audience. 

“He was a very dedicated employee and a great guy,” School Committee Chairman Greg Blasbalg said. 

Auger praised Fossa for his leadership and dedication to his athletes and school athletics both in his three years in North Kingstown and his time in Narragansett before that and warmly welcomed the decision to rename the field in his memory.

In her CIP report, district COO Mary King gave updates on the eight capital improvement projects happening over the summer, saying that construction had been difficult for some of the projects due to shortages of key materials as well as labor, but praised the contractors for their work they’ve been able to do with the hand they’ve been dealt. 

She noted that the ventilation project at Hamilton Elementary School has been going well and that they’ll have all but the rooftop component done in time for school to start, and that they’ll need to set aside a Saturday to complete the project as it will require bringing a crane onto the campus. Bathroom updates at the school were also on time, but the installation of two water bottle refilling stations has been put on hold for now due to lack of supplies, with the stations also being put on hold at the other elementary schools. 

She said the project at Davisville Academy hadn’t started yet but would be completed before school starts, while the project to replace entry doors at Davisville Middle School was also being put on hold. 

The School Committee also unanimously approved King’s request to use part of the ESSER II as well as ESSER III funds once they arrive from the federal government to install a ventilation system at Wickford Middle School, the only school in the district not to have one and the funds would be available for such an infrastructure project since it would be considered a COVID-related expense. 

“If we don’t use these funds, we don’t get them back,” King said. 

King said the project is desperately needed, as is a consistent plan for funding capital improvement projects in North Kingstown. She cited the importance of putting money into Wickford Middle School, the district’s oldest, in order to keep it operational and to prevent costs from continuing to rise as issues become worse with the aging building.

“The district has been on hold for years in terms of discussions of a new middle school,” King said. “We cannot continue to wait to make capital infrastructure improvements to Wickford Middle School any longer.”

In closing the meeting, Blasbalg thanked those still in attendance for their comments. 

“I’m so glad we were able to give so many people the opportunity to speak,” Blasbalg said. “We may not respond to all of the questions and comments right now, but we do listen and we hear what everyone has to say. I think it’s pretty clear from hearing what people had to say that there’s nothing we’re ever going to do that’s going to make everyone in the room happy, (but) we do the best that we can. Some people are going to agree or disagree but that’s what democracy is all about... Democracy isn’t always pretty. It can look like it did tonight, but it sure beats the alternatives.”

The next School Committee meeting is scheduled for Aug. 24 at 7 p.m. in the NKHS Auditorium. The first day of school for grades one through nine and the orientation for Pre-K and Kindergarten is Sept. 3, while the first day for Pre-K, Kindergarten and grades 10 through 12 is Sept. 7. 

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