SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — An attorney hired by the School Committee to examine how former Superintendent of Schools Kristen Stringfellow handled notices of possible teacher layoffs last spring has concluded that Stringfellow failed to adhere to established procedures for doing so, and that it created “unnecessary issues for both the School Department and the affected teachers.”
In the 27-page undated report issued Wednesday by the school department, Providence attorney Charles A. Ruggerio said the School Committee was unaware of layoff notices Stringfellow sent out on April 19.
“There is no evidence that any School Committee member was aware of the deficiencies or Stringfellow’s notices prior to the time they were issued, and thus, there was no way for the Committee to have avoided the problem,” Ruggerio wrote. “It is commendable that the School Committee and the Union have since worked collaboratively to reach a consensus that avoids the uncertainty of a legal challenge to SKSD’s cuts/consolidations for the 2019-2020 school year.”
Ruggerio interviewed seven individuals during the investigation, including Stringfellow, Interim Superintendent Bob Hicks, School Committee Chairwoman Stephanie Canter, then Assistant Superintendent Pauline Lisi, National Education Association of Rhode Island Field Representative Mary Barden, school department attorney Andrew Henneous and schools Chief Financial Officer Maryann Crawford.
He also reviewed pertinent records such as policies and statutes, collective bargaining agreements, grievances and budget documents.
The report delved into the workings of the school department’s 2015 Personnel Assignment and Transfer, or PAT, policy, which was modified in April, shortly before layoff notices were issued. It restored seniority as a factor to be considered when assigning teachers to teaching positions following a layoff or an involuntary transfer.
Ruggerio said that before issuing the April 19 letters, Stringfellow committed to meeting with NEASK President Brian Nelson to review the teachers in jeopardy of being laid off or involuntarily transferred.
But the meeting did not take place and Stringfellow did not meet with any of the teachers before they received the notice.
“Both Lisi and Crawford reported that this was contrary to the practice in prior years, when Stringfellow would meet with NEASK representatives in anticipation of any cuts/consolidations,” Ruggerio said. “The recent changes to the PAT policy did not modify this obligation.”
It also details that Stringfellow met with administrators in the first week of January to review personnel changes, including layoffs, in order to address a projected $100,000 budget gap and an anticipated loss of $660,000 in state aid.
On April 19, she issued letters to teachers notifying them of the proposed changes.
The first letter notified nine teachers that they had been displaced from their teaching assignment at the end of the school year.
Another letter was sent to nine teachers telling them that due to budget cuts, they had been transferred from their existing position to another position within the department.
A third letter was sent to 69 teachers notifying them that Stringfellow would be recommending to the School Committee that their teaching contracts be terminated at the end of the 2018-19 school year.
None of the recipients of the April 19 letters had previously been told by anyone from school administration that they were going to be involuntarily transferred from their existing assignment or that their employment was in jeopardy, Ruggerio said.
Then, the South Kingstown Town Council rejected the School Committee’s proposed 2.5 percent increase to the school budget, approving a more modest 1.75 percent increase to the town’s school appropriation for a total increased contribution of $934,000.
Stringfellow told Ruggerio that she was tasked with providing the committee with “options” about which additional positions to eliminate or modify as part of the Budget Reduction Plan. In most cases, Stringfellow reported only a portion of the position was cut, not the entirety of the position.
“Stringfellow stated that following the passage of the revised PAT policy on April 9, there was a significant change in the displacement/involuntary transfer process,” Ruggerio wrote. “She stated that under her view of the new policy she wouldn’t necessarily know where the teachers were being reassigned to until each of the teachers selected a vacant position based upon their seniority.”
According to Stringfellow, a meeting was scheduled with the union for May 14 to review which positions each of the displaced teachers selected.
Under the previous policy, Stringfellow said she would meet with the PAT co-chair, who is the union president, before notifying teachers of their displacement or reassignment. Stringfellow said the meeting no longer made sense because the selection would be made by the teachers, rather than the PAT committee, based exclusively on their seniority.
Canter told Ruggerio that after Stringfellow’s April 19 letter, she received an overwhelming number of calls from parents and staff with pleas not to cut certain positions.
“She further explained she received calls from SKSD administrators expressing surprise regarding some of the positions identified to be cut and concerns that their buildings would not be able to function or would be out of compliance with federal and state law if the identified positions were to be cut,” the report said. “Canter indicated that neither she nor other members of the Committee were ever notified by Stringfellow about the notices before they were sent. According to Canter, the notices were sent without any coordination with or forewarning to the Committee.”
The School Committee put Stringfellow on paid administrative leave and commissioned the investigation in late April, just days after Stringfellow notified it that she had accepted the superintendent of schools position in Norwich, Connecticut.
The investigation and subsequent report took Ruggerio three months to complete. Stringfellow began her job as the superintendent of Norwich Public Schools on July 1.
The School Committee tabled Stringfellow’s recommendations and instead hired Hicks as interim superintendent on May 3.
Hicks rescinded the April 19 letters and worked with administrators and union representatives to build a new agreed-upon list of layoffs and transfers, and letters were issued to 41 teachers on May 22, Ruggerio said.
Ultimately, a total of 23 teachers were laid off and another 16 teachers had their positions reduced in some manner.
“However, much like in years past, these notices followed a collaborative process between SKSD administration and the impacted teachers’ collective bargaining representatives at NEASK,” he wrote. “In sum, in the absence of any additional notice to the teachers or the Union, I find that the April 19, 2019, letters failed to provide teachers adequate notice so as to afford them a meaningful opportunity to advocate before the Committee for the restoration of their positions.”
The report is available online at www.skschools.net/school_committee/school_committee/CurrentInfo.