SOUTH KINGSTOWN — The town’s school committee Monday voted to end the employment of Superintendent Linda Savastano just short of two years on the job and made her the third town official relinquishing a leadership post amid multiple controversies around school issues in town.
By a unanimous vote of the School Committee, members approved a “separation agreement” that the panel last week told its attorney to negotiate with Savastano. It is effective immediately.
Her separation agreement includes continuing her full pay until Dec. 31 unless she is hired elsewhere and then a reduction schedule follows. In addition, both she and the school committee agree to avoid publicly criticizing each other.
The committee appointed Ginamarie Masiello, curriculum director, to handle day-to-day operations until an interim superintendent is found. The committee also faces the task now of also undertaking a broader search for a permanent superintendent.
The committee offered no words or comments about her handling of the district matters apart from the controversial mailer that appeared to have cost her the job.
Savastano, in a prepared statement Monday night, said, “I know that what is most important now, is that the focus returns to serving the best interests and goals of our students and the community.
“I am grateful for the support that I have received from so many teachers, staff, parents, administrators, and community members during my tenure. I know that this is the best decision for all involved and I wish everyone success in the future,” she said.
This departure follows the resignation last week of committee chairwoman and Savastano supporter Emily Cummiskey. In May, the Town Council forced out Town Manager Robert Zarnetske.
These two and Savastano were involved with contentious issues related to a failed $85-million bond referendum. In addition, Cummiskey and Savastano were also embroiled in other divisive issues including requests for public records about school curriculum.
However, the spotlight shone especially bright on Savastano for her role in releasing the names and addresses of students for a political mailer addressed to them - although with parents the intended audience - in support of the referendum.
Savastano initially denied knowledge of the circumstances of the release. Later she admitted that she authorized the information to be given to a representative of local pro-bond advocacy group, though she claims that she did not follow up with questions about its intended use.
A representative from the advocacy group - Friends of South Kingstown Schools - then passed the student names and addresses to the AFL-CIO of Rhode Island, which sent the pro-bond mailer to students at their homes.
The action drew condemnation from parents and outrage in the community as well as across local social media.
It came about a week before South Kingstown voters, by a 2-to-1 margin, voted down the proposal to move the high school to a renovated Curtis Corner Middle School building.
Critics said they were especially angry that the superintendent initially denied providing the information before issuing a June 11 acknowledgment. The South Kingstown Town Council is investigating Savastano’s actions as well as potentially others involved.
Savastano said in her acknowledgement, “I am also deeply sorry that I delayed in telling the school committee and our greater school community that I had provided directory information to the Friends of South Kingstown Schools.“
“In my mind, I had not connected the dots," she said, referring to either her failure or decision not to inquire about the purposes for the request and uses of the information.
Jim Bradshaw, a spokesman for the federal U.S. Department of Education and its student privacy section, told The Independent Monday that he would check on whether Savastano violated any federal laws - especially those aimed to prevent stalking - with the disclosure of student names and addresses.
Savastano in her acknowledgement June 11 said that "in retrospect, I should have made those connections. This was a mistake. I do wish that I had informed the school committee sooner about providing the directory information to the Friends of South Kingstown Schools, and for that, I apologize,” she said.
That explanation, though, was not enough to satisfy town council President Abel Collins.
“I think this whole thing could have been over a lot sooner if people had just come forward originally with this information. That being said, we’re not entirely satisfied we have all the information related to how this happened,” he said in recent comments on the matter.
Cummiskey said she had no knowledge of the matter, saying she learned about the details when Savastano revealed her own role in the matter. Cummiskey told The Independent this week that “I don’t believe that Linda Savastano intentionally lied to anybody. I believe her when she said that she didn’t connect the dots.”
Cummiskey said that the student names and addresses are disclosed to other groups, such as college recruiters, boy and girl scouting organizations looking to enroll members and other uses for school purposes.
“I think it was a mistake that the kids names were put on the mailer by the AFL,” she said.
Predecessor Also Encountered Trouble
Savastano was appointed in August 2019, succeeding former Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow. Stringfellow was put on leave after conflict over layoff policy with a School Committee faction that included Cummiskey and Sarah Markey, a labor organizer for the NEA-RI.
Stringfellow resigned to become superintendent of the Norwich, Conn. school district.
Robert Hicks, a former superintendent in South Kingstown, came out of retirement to work on a per diem basis prior to Savastano’s 2019 appointment.