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South Kingstown School Committee member Paula Whitford casts her ballot at the South Kingstown High School polling station during the town’s school bond referendum on May 4. The referendum was overwhelmingly shot down by a 2-to-1 margin.

SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — From wild weather to rowdy school committee meetings, 2021 was a year of disruption in South Kingstown. While the town closed out the last few months of the year in relative calm, there was no shortage of controversy and upheaval in local affairs. On the positive side, one of the town’s most well-known and loved residents also completed a project with personal significance to veterans and their families.

School facilities bond loses

Voters on May 4 overwhelmingly rejected South Kingstown’s request for up to $85 million in bonds for a sweeping school facilities improvement program.

The vote marked the conclusion of months of planning and public outreach efforts by supporters of the project to move the high school from Columbia Street to the Curtis Corner Middle School building and to renovate and expand it.

Middle schoolers at Curtis Corner would have moved to Broad Rock Middle School, and each of the town’s elementary schools would have undergone smaller-scale improvements.

Stage II approval would have made the town eligible for up to 50% reimbursement from the state for construction costs. The project was set to move forward only if voters approved the bond referendum and state authorities approved the application for reimbursement.

The campaign for the bond became one of the most polarizing issues in South Kingstown in recent years. A vocal segment of the town’s population opposed it – although most didn’t offer the traditional argument that such a project introduces higher taxes. Many opponents said, rather, that the plan was not the right fit for the town’s schools.

Critics questioned several aspects of the efforts made to get approval of the bond, including the school department’s hiring of a public relations firm.  

A boiling point came when the town learned that mailers asking residents to support the measure were addressed to their school-age children, and that the AFL-CIO, which sent them, had received directory information about the students.

Mailer investigation and fallout

In October, the Town Council said it had accepted and would not change the report of an investigation into how the AFL-CIO mailer was sent out, and by whom.

Several residents pressed the council to continue examining the issue, especially in relation to allegations that former Supt. of Schools Linda Savastano tampered with email related to the probe.

The council acknowledged it received a letter from Savastano asking that it amend what she says are errors in the August report about the mailer. The council placed the letter on file with no further action.

Savastano, who departed from the school district in June but is receiving pay until the new year, said she was the target of a “dehumanizing and defamatory” smear campaign.

Just before her departure in June, Savastano said she had given a list of student names to Stacey Bodziony. Bodziony was a member of a local group supporting passage of the bond. Bodziony then passed the names list to a marketing firm which produced the Rhode Island AFL-CIO paid mailers that went to local homes in late April.

Many parents were upset that the mailer was addressed to their children. They also worried about violations of student privacy and criticized Savastano for not being more forthcoming about fulfilling the records request.

School Committee in turmoil

The Town Council moved swiftly two fill two vacancies in the School Committee after the abrupt resignation of two of its members.

Former Chairwoman Emily Cummiskey resigned her leadership role and then left the committee entirely as it was embroiled in multiple controversies, including fallout over the political mailer and a local woman’s request for public records on how the schools teach race and gender issues that briefly sparked national media attention and raucous meetings.

Member Sarah Markey resigned as well to focus on her health, she said.

Council members picked Michael Marran and Carol Vetter to fill the vacancies until the terms expire in November 2022. Paula Whitford became the new chairwoman.

In June, school officials backed off a threat to sue a local parent who filed public records requests about race and gender curriculum, hoping instead to mediate the issue in a case that has drawn national attention.

The parent, Nicole Solas of Wakefield, rejected a mediation offer. The teachers union subsequently sued Solas in an attempt to stop what it said was invasive inquiries and requests for personal teacher data. The union later dropped the complaint.

Henri deals glancing blow to South County

The unwelcome visitor that was Tropical Storm Henri passed over Rhode Island’s coast and caused widespread power outages, but less damage than initially feared.

The storm, which was a Category 1 hurricane briefly before arriving at Block Island, knocked down trees and power lines throughout Washington County, with South Kingstown taking the brunt of the outages.

Henri caused perhaps hundreds of downed trees in the region, with many of them blocking roads and driveways. Line crews from other states poured into the region to begin repairs that would take several days to complete.

Among the casualties was a large green buoy that broke loose in Block Island sound. Henri’s force was enough to wash the buoy onto the beach at Willow Dell.

Interim town Manager Theresa Murphy said town officials were anxious to get residents and small businesses back up and running. “We have three weeks left of our summer and (for) our businesses, this has added insult to injury in terms of having been down for a year due to COVID and now this tropical storm has added to that,” Murphy said.

Zarnetske out as town manager

Murphy, town recreation and leisure director, and a town employee for over a decade, took over in June while the Town Council looks for a new permanent manager following the departure of Rob Zarnetske. The process is likely to last into 2022.

Zarnetske was pushed out by a majority of the town council for a variety of reasons, with the failure of an $85 million school bond — and Zarnetske’s refusal to increase funding for the school department by more than a million dollars in the most recent budget — as the breaking point.

Zarnetske was among four opponents on the school building committee who essentially voted to delay the process of the upgrade moving forward until more financial information was provided by the town’s school committee and others.

Current and former town officials also said some had wariness about his understanding of community needs and values as well as reservations regarding a conflict with the former department director of administrative services. Town manager for three-and-a-half years, Zarnetske is eligible to receive about a $200,000 severance package, The Independent learned.

Purple Heart Trail is completed and dedicated

A motorcycle procession of veterans and their families inaugurated the Rhode Island Purple Heart Trail on Aug. 7, making a trip from East Greenwich down Routes 4 and 1 to Westerly, where an official dedication took place.

It’s the culmination of several years of work by veterans, especially Wakefield VFW Post 916  Commander Joe “Tiger” Patrick, and state legislators to get the state to approve the designation.  

Aug. 7 marks National Purple Heart Day, and Gov. Dan McKee joined the ceremony in Westerly to give remarks about the state’s new trail honoring Purple Heart recipients.

The Ocean State is home to more than 1,300 Purple Heart veterans according to Patrick, but an estimated 500 veterans are not receiving any services through the Veterans Administration.

McKee said the new trail will bring awareness to the needs of local veterans, and connect them to programs and services.

“Something that Tiger Patrick, the motivating force behind this project, hopes to accomplish. And we’ll partner with him to make that happen,” McKee said.

In July, Patrick completed a one-man walking trek on the route, clutching a pole with an American flag and wearing a Purple Heart Trail sign strapped to his back. He’s been involved with the creation of the trail designation from the start.

The signs have been put up along the highway, from the Showcase Cinemas area of Route 4 in East Greenwich and through North Kingstown, to Route 1 in South Kingstown, Narragansett, Charlestown and Westerly to the Connecticut border.

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