An unusual Friday night meeting of the South Kingstown School Committee became contentious over what should have been an easy procedural issue, revealing deep divides within the community. The School Committee was voting on whether or not to terminate the legal services of Sara Rapport and begin the search for new legal counsel.
It is quite common for an elected board or council to adopt new legal counsel when there is a big change in makeup. This last election, a group of four women, Stephanie Canter, Sarah Markey, Emily Cummiskey and Jacy Northrup, calling themselves the “final four” because they were listed last on the ballot, took four of the five open positions on the school committee. Another candidate, Democrat Katherine Macinanti, was also elected. The last two members of the seven member committee, Alycia Collins and Michelle Brousseau-Cavallaro, were not up for re-election.
The recent history of the South Kingstown School Committee is filled with twists and turns. Four members of the Committee resigned over the course of 2016/2017. Republican Roland Benjamin, who twice ran for and lost a position on the school committee, was nominated to the school board by a Democratically controlled South Kingstown Town Council, only to assume the chair of the committee in 2016 sometime after the Rhode Island Attorney General determined that five members of the school committee (including Benjamin) had violated the Open Meetings Act while engineering a coup against then-Chair Alycia Collins. In the recent 2018 election Benjamin did not garner enough votes to stay on the school committee, meaning that the one time chair of the School Committee in South Kingstown has never been elected by voters to serve.
Opposition to the “final four” began almost immediately after they were sworn in, with a lot of it centered on Sarah Markey, who ran as an independent and works as an organizer for National Education Association Rhode Island (NEARI), a teacher’s union. Previous to her election, when Markey was being considered for a nomination to the school committee in 2017 (in the wake of a school committee member stepping down) school committee legal counsel Rapport wrote an opinion claiming that the Rhode Island Code of Ethics would require Markey to “recuse herself from many, if not most matters that the Committee must address.”
Ahead of the first meeting of the new School Committee last Tuesday, Rapport made the decision to go on the Dan Yorke radio show to talk about Markey and the opinion she authored about Markey’s potential conflicts of interest. Rapport noted in her interview with Yorke that Markey was now, since being elected to the School Committee, her client.
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Markey believes that her job with NEARI will mean that she won’t be able to conduct some business as a School Committee member, but doesn’t think she’ll have to recuse herself from “most” matters. Markey has sent a request to the Rhode Island Ethics Commission for clarification. It should be noted that in the recent election, Markey received the second highest number of votes, with voters being fully aware of her connection to NEARI.
At the Friday night meeting, called because it was the earliest the School Committee could meet after tabling the decision about legal counsel at a meeting held Tuesday, Rapport was let go as legal counsel in a 5-2 vote. More than half the crowd booed.
Critics of the new School Committee say that the dismissal of the legal counsel is not the main issue. They decry what they see as a lack of openness. No one has tried to make the case that the Friday meeting wasn’t properly noticed or in violation of the Open Meetings Act, but School Committee member Brousseau-Cavallaro did intimate that there had been some sort of rolling quorum behind the scenes, to coordinate the timing of the meeting and the vote to dismiss counsel. Committee Member Markey dismissed Brousseau-Cavallaro’s allegation.
Public testimony was not allowed at Friday’s meeting, since the entire purpose of the meeting was to finalize a vote tabled at Tuesday’s meeting, which lasted over 4 hours, and had “unlimited” opportunities for public comment.
The most chilling part of the evening came when School Committee Member Cummiskey spoke about receiving a threat over the telephone, telling her that if she voted to terminate Rapport as legal counsel, “bad things” were going to happen to her, and she wouldn’t “know what they were going to be.”
After the meeting was over a very angry man approached Markey and, jabbing his finger in the air, said, “You are infiltrating our democracy!”
“I honestly don’t believe that this kind of hateful, anti-union, anti-woman attitude is actually reflective of our broader community,” said Markey to me, in an interview.
Here’s the full interview:
“About a year ago there started to be some concerns about the School Committee,” said Markey, when I asked her what was going on. “There was a big facilities project looking at school usage and should we close schools. There was a process, a bunch of community meetings, but the folks who were on the school committee at the time, three of them were appointed, out of seven, because of some resignations. And a key piece of this is that one of the people appointed is a a Republican, Roland Benjamin, who’s run for office multiple times, and lost. He’s a guy who’s deeply embedded in the Republican Party.
“So, in typical small town politics, Benjamin puts his name in for nomination to the School Committee, and Bryant Da Cruz, a member of the South Kingtown Town Council, appoints Benjamin to the School Committee.”
According to Markey, both Da Cruz and Benjamin pull their kids out of public schools in South Kingstown and send their kids to Bishop Hendricken High School in Warwick.
“So Roland becomes chair of a School Committee that no one is ever electing him to here in this town,” continued Markey. “Through the facilities process Wakefield Elementary School is slated for closing, along with two other schools. There’s a huge community response when Wakefield is slated for closing. It’s my elementary school. My oldest son went there. My younger son just started kindergarten there. So this group of four moms, as part of this much bigger community organizing effort, says, ‘We’ll run.’
“So we ran, and we ran a great campaign. We knocked on 4600 doors, in a school committee race. We had volunteers, parents and teachers out knocking all the time. We sent postcards. We ran a solid campaign. And we won!
“When I was running I knew I could run because anyone can run. I was really honest with people while door knocking. I informed them that I am a labor organizer I wok for NEA Rhode Island, I don’t work with this district, and I also own a small business and have kids in the schools and I’m a real person.
“I got some push back. Some of it was due to School Committee legal counsel Sara Rapport,” continued Markey, saying that it was School Committee Chair Benjamin who asked Rapport to write the opinion about Markey’s potential conflicts of interest. The solicitor for the Town, according to Markey, said that it was, “pretty unprecedented in an appointment that the School Committee would ask their legal counsel to write a memo or a legal opinion about why this person isn’t a good fit.”
Markey continues, “So we get elected, and I’m expecting a little push back, like questions as to what I can and cannot do as a School Committee member who works for NEARI. This is the first time I know of that a union organizer has run for School Committee in Rhode Island and won. It’s happened before, in other states.
“Soon after the election, it seems like all Hell has broken loose. We first get inundated with questions about whether or not we’re violating the Open Meetings Act from the same core group of people that include Raissa Mosher and Roland Benjamin, two past School Committee members, and the people who supported them in the last election.
“I thought people would graciously move on, but that’s not happening. Mosher and Benjamin are coming to School Committee meetings. On Tuesday, when we had our first long School Committee meeting that half of the small town Republican Party was there. Suddenly, the School Committee meeting wasn’t a place to do business, it was a place to come at us.
“The story is that these four moms, as part of a broader community organizing effort, overturned the School Committee,” said Markey. “but there’s a group of folks who are just not letting the election go, and are feeding into Dan Yorke and John DePetro. Dan Yorke called School Committee Chair Stephanie Canter a sorority girl and spent like ten minutes making fun of the way she talks.
“Now the story is about me and that this is a NEARI plot and they’re going to take over the schools,” said Markey. “But my job does not own me.”
Here’s the full Friday evening meeting:
Here’s Tuesday meeting:
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