A minor controversy in South Kingstown raises a question that Rhode Islanders across the state should consider.
Town Council member Bryant Da Cruz (a Democrat) has expressed concerns that a newly elected member of the School Committee, Sarah Markey (another Democrat), can be expected to fully engage with her new role, considering that Markey holds a $126,000-per-year job as a member advocate for the National Education Association of Rhode Island. Markey’s response, while entirely correct, points to how inadequate our thinking is on these issues in the Ocean State:
“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.”
Look, if this is what South Kingstown wants, it’s what South Kingstown should probably get, but that means the people of South Kingstown should understand what they’re doing. To my experience, people don’t realize what school committees are, often seeing them as sort of official PTOs, not councils charged with the governance of multimillion-dollar, socially indispensable organizations. Furthermore, folks don’t fully think through the political philosophy, according to which it is essential that the school committee is on the side of the students.
On that point, recall a 2015 post in this space pointing to the simple reminder from former teacher union head Marcia Reback that, when students’ and teachers’ interests diverge or even conflict, “I represent the teachers.” Well, Sarah Markey represents the teachers as a highly paid occupation. This isn’t something that can truly be compartmentalized. As Da Cruz emphasizes, closing schools reduces the number of teachers. More than that: every expense of the school district that doesn’t go toward teachers puts more pressure on their compensation.
At the very least, Markey’s presence on the committee reduces the number of people on the committee who can reliably be expected to err on the side of students (and taxpayers) when one must benefit at the expense of the other.