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NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — A School Committee member facing a recall effort in North Kingstown has dismissed claims made in a mailer sent out to recruit residents to sign a petition calling for her ouster.

Jennifer Lima, who is in her first term on the committee, said the flyer was funded by the Gaspee Project on behalf of the people who are trying to recall her.

“The only thing true on there is that my name is Jennifer Lima and that I am a North Kingstown School Committee Member,” she said, calling the attacks on her the work of a small but vocal group.

Among the mailer’s claims: that Lima shamed students, tried to mis-use taxpayer money, misrepresented her campaign and “lied on the radio.”

The group also charges that she organized “a group of Marxists” to indoctrinate children with anti-police propaganda and “divisive racial and gender theories.”

Lima said she’s been targeted because she ran on an anti-racism platform and pushed for creation of a  Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) subcommittee, which the committee unanimously approved.

In an online FAQ, local Democrats say its purpose is to examine “how (among other things) race, ethnicity, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status affect and influence district-wide practice.”

The DEI subcommittee, like all other subcommittees, serves in a purely advisory capacity and reports back to the School Committee with its findings and recommendations. The DEI subcommittee is currently looking only at school policies and practices, not at the curriculum, Lima, a co-chairperson, said.

“The subcommittee held its first two meetings in May and June,” Lima, said. “By the time it had its third meeting in August, it was already under fire.”

Lima also founded an anti-racism group called Towards an Anti-racist North Kingstown (TANK).

She and other school officials say the schools do not teach critical race theory, which holds that discrimination and the legacy of slavery still shape the nation’s social, cultural and legal institutions, to the detriment of people of color.

Critics say its teaching results in a form of reverse racism in order to punish whites for slavery and discrimination of the past.

A group of town residents filed the petition to recall Lima, a 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 teachers — above her individual views” and having “publicly stated an opinion which is not representative of the views of her constituents.”

The Gaspee Project calls its flyer a “public awareness mailer” in support of the recall petition by the group Friends of NK Schools. The group’s web page also asks for volunteers to collect signatures and has a check box for town voters who want to be contacted to sign the petition.

Gaspee Project said it would require $10,000 in donations to “cover all of North Kingstown,” but that the donations are private and that it would not disclose donor names.

Richmond resident Clay Johnson, chairman of the Gaspee Project, issued a statement about the group’s  role in the recall effort.

“The propaganda from the corporate media continues to ignore the pushback from parents on extremist teachings in our public schools,” he said. “The Gaspee Project is highlighting this student-initiated recall drive because it is one of the few venues where the people’s voice can be heard.”

The Gaspee Project has a record of supporting conservative and libertarian causes.

It bills itself as “a grassroots citizen initiative whose mission is to preserve the values and principles upon which our beloved state of Rhode Island was founded. Like the colonists almost 250 years ago who banded together off of Gaspee Point in Warwick to stand up to a tyrannical monarchy, the Gaspee Project is dedicated to providing a forum where concerned Rhode Islanders, today, can make their collective voices heard and to coordinate advocacy efforts to change the failed status-quo in Rhode Island.”

Critics say the group, which is aligned with the conservative R.I. Center for Freedom and Prosperity, is secretive about its funding, and is part of a network of right-wing lobby organizations.

Lima and others also dispute that the recall is student-driven, and note only that two recent North Kingstown High School graduates were the first ones to sign the petition. Lima said a student PAC at the high school supports her, and backed her candidacy.

Public supporters of the petition include town councilors Mary Primer and Kerry McKay; Hannah Zangari, the first runner-up in the November 2020 school committee election, and Friends of NK Schools.

North Kingstown Town Council President Greg Mancini, a Democrat, said the local party supports Lima. She was the top vote-getter in the 2020 race for School Committee.

“We cannot let unaccountable out of town special interests spread lies in order to undermine the will of North Kingstown,” he said. “Please do not sign their disgraceful petition.”

The party on Sept. 23 issued a statement of support for Lima, which included the names of local Democratic officeholders and state legislators.

The petition faces an uphill chance at succeeding in North Kingstown. Advocates have until Oct. 8 to submit 3,100 valid signatures to the Board of Canvassers. If that succeeds, at least 6,200 registered voters would then need to vote to recall Lima in an election later this year or early next year. If the recall succeeds, the first runner-up in the 2020 election, Republican Zangari, would fill the seat.

Controversy over school curriculum and race erupted on the public stage over the summer, both locally and nationally.

In neighboring South Kingstown, the school committee chairwoman and another member resigned after critical race theory opponents, including a local parent, filed requests for public information about school curriculum and other details related to teaching about race and gender.

The South Kingstown committee faced vocal criticism and, some members said, threats when it planned to consider filing a lawsuit to stop the requests. The committee withdrew the proposal.  

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