Councilman Questions Impartiality of NEA-Employed School Committee Member

Wednesday, November 21, 2018


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The recent vote to close Wakefield Elementary -- and opposition to the closure -- have been at the center of debate in South Kingstown.

A member of the South Kingstown Town Council is questioning how a new member of the South Kingstown School Committee employed by the National Educational Association of Rhode Island (NEARI) will be able to be impartial when it comes to considering matters including the budget and potential school closures. 

Democrat Bryant Da Cruz, who was re-elected to the town council in 2018, said he was approached by Democrat Sarah Markey, who he "considered a friend" when she decided to run for school committee this year.

"I want what’s best for the town. [Markey] is a friend, she asked if I’d support her in her run for school committee, but I said I don’t think I could because her NEA employment would be a conflict," said Da Cruz.

Da Cruz spoke to both fiscal issues facing the town, as well as the recent vote by the school committee to close Wakefield Elementary School -- and the opposition led by Markey during the campaign to the closure, as spearheaded by the 'Why Wakefield' effort.

"She'll say that I, or whomever, don't like the fact that she was able to run and help get their bottom four candidates elected," said Da Cruz. "I understand that the voters spoke. But if you’re part of the NEA, and you’re able to keep that school open, that's a direct correlation to employment numbers and your job. Now there’s rumors about why don’t they close another school instead. Pre-election this was a hot topic, and post-election now even more so. The bottom line is we need to know, and the town deserves to know — what [Markey] can vote on and what she cannot vote on."

Markey, who listed "union organizer" for NEARI on her most recent Ethics Commission filing, said she believes the only issue she will have to recuse herself on is contract and discipline issues, but not schools closures. 

"From reviewing the recent ethics commision advisories, I would have to recuse myself from discipline, termination, and negotiations with the NEARI bargaining members," said Markey when reached by email on Tuesday. "No, school closures don't apply."

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Bryant Da Cruz (Photo:FB/campaign)

Rhode Island Ethics Commissioner Jason Grammitt, who said that Markey has not herself yet sought an advisory, weighed on the issue as well.

"Employment by a labor union does not disqualify one from holding elective public office under the Code of Ethics.  It is treated like any other private employment so that the public official, while not barred from serving in the elective position, may have to recuse from participation in certain matters that either involve or financially impact his or her private employer," said Grammitt. "But aside from recusing on those issues, the public official is free to participate in other matters that do not involve his or her employer."

South Kingstown Issues

"Ten or fifteen years ago, the student population [in South Kingstown]was around 4200. What I've been told is it’s now under 3000. That’s a significant drop-off," said Da Cruz. "The only thing the town council can control is the budget.  When they came to us last some [school committee members] wanted a 4% increase, and that's the max. I had an issue. It should be a number that generally doesn't come out to an even percentage. That was right after 2016. So I said it doesn't make sense. We have a huge declining population and they’re asking for more money -- I strongly believe in education but I want to be as efficient as possible. If we're wasting money someone who needs it isn't getting it."

"We had the issue of the funding formula at the state level, when [former Rhode Island Education Commissioner] Deborah Gist said ‘we don’t need the money’ down here. So we ended up on the negative end of the funding formula, and we kept losing money — around $600,000 a year," said Da Cruz. "So I agreed to 2.5%, after starting at 1.39%. People weren't happy but started paying attention.  One of the reasons I agreed is the school committee agreed at looking at ways to save money for the future, including hiring a consultant to help. The school committee put out an RFP, and we were invited in asking questions but it was the school committee who chose a consultant. They had four options on the table [as part of the legacy plan], and we got the whole community involved."

Read: South Kingstown Legacy Plan

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Sarah Markey (Photo:FB/campaign)

"Eventually the School Committee voted on option B which included closing Wakefield Elementary School, Curtis Corner Middle School, adding on to our fifth and 6th-grade school to make it 6th, 7th, and 8th,  and then bringing 5th grade back to elementary and adding on gyms to some schools," said Da Cruz.  "I think most people didn't think that Wakefield was on the line until it happened. Then the website was started by Markey, 'Why Wakefield.' Meanwhile, there's another school within a mile of Wakefield – Peace Dale -- which is newer.  With Wakefield, it needed the most work and most money per square foot.  Then the state did a study, which we didn't know at the time, and  they came back with similar findings."

Read: "Why Wakefield" Opposition to Closure

"So the 'Why Wakefield' group became very vocal. And they got a group of people to run to keep Wakefield Elementary open," said Da Cruz. "I know they were worried it would affect business on Main Street. Mind you, this is four to five years away.  I sit on the contingency committee, and for instance, if a new big employer comes in, things could change. So this election, I was surprised I got re-elected. I was one of the only two running for council that supported the current plan. The puzzling thing -- I did really well at Wakefield."

"We're losing kids, and it’s one of the biggest issues in our town, such as encouraging over 55 communities which impacts younger families. And as I mentioned, we've also been on the negative side of the state funding formula for years now," said Da Cruz. "Then there was a blue wave -- what may have happened is a lot of Republicans voted for 'Independents,' and in my opinion, this particular group has control of a seven member school committee and can blow up what we did in the last year and a half."

"I look at a lot of different things -- my job is the entire town. I just think it's going to end up costing people," said Da Cruz. "We’re talking about at least S600,000 per year in NEA related operational savings."


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