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A woman votes at the South Kingstown High School polling station during the town's school bond referendum on May 4.

SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — The words “trust” and “transparency” — suggestions about honesty — keep surfacing in discussion about of the town’s divisive school improvement vote that met a recent crushing defeat.

Both opponents and proponents use the terms, but tell about different intentions during interviews this week with The Independent about reasons for a 2-to-1 rejection of the $85-million bond referendum.

Now at a crossroads, officials and residents are going back to the drawing board with much to repair in relations with each other as with reconfigured school plans. By a 5,261-to-1,986 vote — with about one-third of eligible voters casting ballots — residents returned the project to the starting gate again.

“I believe the plan for moving the high school to Curtis Corner presented a good strategy for improving our schools for what would have been a bargain, but it was the product of a very messy process, and I think it died the death of a million cuts,” said Abel Collins, South Kingstown Town Council president

The proposal sparked between opposing camps torrents of social media exchanges and criticism, name calling and punches at local officials’ integrity before a humiliating defeat.

Schools Superintendent Linda Savastano, looking at this vote and other school-related issues, commented, “We need to serve our community in a more transparent and clear way. With this said, if, given the chance, I am confident that we can do this.”

Resident Greg Sweet, who attended most meetings about the project and opposed the referendum, said, “This was a very complex plan without strong leadership. Transparency was also a big problem. Trust was completely broken over this process.”

Accusations of and defenses about a lack of “trust” and “transparency” – words suggesting doubts about truthful or direct information or answers to questions – created a strong skepticism feeding rejection of the proposal education officials’ championed, said those interviewed.

The vote marked the conclusion – perhaps temporarily – of an effort started in a complicated process years ago.

This latest iteration included a controversial relocation of the Columbia Street high school into the Curtis Corner Road middle school that would have been renovated for the new use.

In turn, middle schoolers would go to Broad Rock Middle School. Also, each of the town’s elementary schools would have undergone smaller-scale improvements.

Both accused the other of creating roadblocks to compromise and negotiation, an action eroding trust in public officials’ claims that the changes are needed and that their data and assessments is correct.

Any path forward now, said those interviewed, needs restoration of trust and confidence in school officials as well as in their plans for improving educational opportunities for aging facilities and dwindling numbers of children.

This week five key five key players gave their assessments to The Independent about a fight that became so bitter and the loss so large.

Why such an overwhelming loss?

“I believe that that loss was not because of one single factor. I believe that it was a perfect storm of many factors,” said Savastano, but noted that a clear “call to action” to mobilize voters around a strong theme was missing.

She noted the many factors included a lack of trust in the project going back a few years, uncertainty about what happens to the current high school if it is moved, and potential tax increases.

Emily Cummiskey, school committee chairwoman, offered, “There were several transfers of power during the facility planning process – one could look to the very beginning when the original vote took place by a school committee majority that wasn’t elected.”

She pointed out that in 2017 four elected school committee members resigned and were replaced with appointed residents. The committee went through a transition of membership as well as the shifts in leadership in the school superintendent’s office.

“Educational visions changed. We went through another school committee election. Through all of this change of power came new ideas, new information, and overall created a lot of confusion in the community,” she said.

“Along the way people became invested for different reasons in championing for what they believed in,” Cummiskey added.

Asked whether the school committee of volunteers had a simplified enough “call to action” from their hired Boston-based professional public relations consultants and if the firm had helped in ways beneficial to increasing public understanding, Cummiskey sidestepped answering.

According to school officials, Horan Communications had a contract for $35,000 with the town from March through November last year. The contract lists services such as communications strategy and tactics as part of a comprehensive public information and engagement campaign.

Horan Communications representative and owner, Christopher Horan, declined comment this week on his work and referred all questions to Savastano. She did not reply by press time about permitting him to talk about the success – or lack of it – of his work for the town.

Cummiskey, however, emphasized the intensifying frustrations from COVID-19 restrictions as stymieing a stronger public awareness effort.

“Community engagement in authentic ways became nearly impossible. Zoom meetings took the place of building tours and in person discussions,” she said.

Opponents like Sweet and Joe Viele, executive director of the Southern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce and former town council member, said they saw other — and more serious — problems.

“There were many questions asked, but not being answered, so we had to find answers on our own. As answers were found and brought out publicly for discussion more questions needed to be looked into,” Sweet said about the perception officials of hiding information.

“Not being open and honest with the public created a lot of animosity in our town. And in the final weeks, the release of student data to political operatives was the final straw. The vote was as much a community statement on its trust of the district as it was an assessment of a complicated plan,” he said.

Residents, Viele said, “felt left out of the process, almost as though the school administration felt ‘We know what’s best.’ As more people started to get involved, the trust issue began to get worse. Residents felt, in my opinion, that they weren’t being addressed or communicated with.”

It means, he explained and echoing the sentiments of other opponents, that some people thought school officials and their representatives either did not “give truthful or direct answers to questions.”

For example, he said, on an issue with site work costs residents had to repeatedly ask for answers and did not trust the answer either after discovering it themselves or being told.

“If it takes you three meetings to get an answer, that’s not transparent,” he said, adding, “There was also a feeling that leadership was missing.”

Collins said that school officials made a mistake in switching the location of the old high school before figuring out its next use. That move coupled with abrupt changes and rushing to a referendum created hurdles to rebuild trust with the new set of school officials, he added.

“I think any time there is a proposal for significant change for any issue the default position is no, and it takes a very strong argument to get people on board,” the town council president said.

“We know there is overwhelming local support for making sure our kids are learning in better schools than what they have today, but abandoning a school that many people in town have spent formative years in is a lot to ask when we know that there is an alternative that could keep it open,” Collins said.

Future Direction

There’s no question with anyone interviewed that much work on all sides lies ahead for school improvements to get done.

“Again, we need to learn what those details are and work with our community to earn their trust and meet their vision. This is critical, with or without a bond. The school department provides a service for the entire community. It is clear that we have a great deal of work to do,” said Savastano.

She said that “high conflict has taken over South Kingstown” and needs to be addressed by school leaders and others in the community.

“We need to come together. The word humility keeps coming to mind. I am sure of one thing. When we have sides – no one wins. Today, our children and the future of our schools are in the middle of this conflict,” the superintendent said.

Cummiskey agreed on the task of re-establishing trust and having negotiated working relationships.

She also said that municipal government officials need to join with school officials to explore what could become of abandoned school properties — whichever ones they may be — because all buildings cannot remain open and in use for schooling.

“We need to come together and unite as committees and as a community so that we can find a solution that works for all,” she said.

Vitriolic comments on social media that stoked resentment and pushed people to take sides need to stop, the school committee chairwoman said.

“We need to do this in a respectful way that attacks the problems and not the people. Finally, we need to trust the experts that we hire to do the work. Then we need to follow through on holding all parties accountable,” she said.

Sweet, a vocal referendum opponent, proposed redistricting for more solid educational planning, which includes use of buildings today and in the future.

A group or task force should be formed, and include various community members who favored and opposed this plan, experts in assessing school planning as well as local officials from municipal government and the school committee, said various individuals involved on either side of debate.

“We can come up with a plan that will better serve our students, teachers and residents. South Kingstown has always supported its education program, and we look forward to hammering out a better plan,” Sweet said.

Viele, another opponent who also represents opinions of the business community, said officials need to focus on creating a plan that is perceived by a majority of people as reasonable and supporting community values, trust, transparency and leadership.

Getting there, however, is another matter. Collins said that “the ball is in the school committee’s court at this point.”

He said that the town needs to make investments to improve schools and echoed that scaling down is needed.

“I think there is still a baseline consensus that the future of our school facilities will have 5th grade in the elementary schools, a 6-8th grade middle school, and a greatly improved high school,” he said.

“I believe that we can come up with a plan that gains both community and state approval based on these elements,” Collins said, but cautioned “we should be prepared to face the fact that our previous failures mean the ultimate price of the project is going to increase substantially.”

Various officials said that will be one hard lesson learned. Another in this schoolyard fight is one that time has held certain.

“I am confident,” said Savastano, “that we will only be better off if we learn from our mistakes and keep our focus on preparing our students for today’s world and their future.”

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

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