An Important Question About School Committee Impartiality


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.

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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.

  • Joe Smith

    Hmm..and yet this issue hasn’t been raised for years with the charter schools that are allowed (due to a liberal interpretation of RIGL 16-12-2) to have teachers on their school boards. In a related manner, a non-profit “sponsor” of a charter school, that was awarded no-bid management fees for years, had written into the charter a requirement for both board membership and board “veto” authority by the sponsor over major school items. Ironically, this school was also allowed to have the principal employed by the sponsor (in addition to the school) and a board member of the sponsor employed by the school. Geez – no conflicts of interest there..or oversight as to when public employees are doing the work of the non-profit on the public’s time.

    recuse myself from discipline, termination, and negotiations with the NEARI bargaining members. Hmm.. don’t forget approving all hirings (who become in the case of teachers members of her organization); or policies (which can greatly impact her members), or..the list goes on. Hiring of the superintendent is one of the primary jobs of a school board – the same person who has supervisory responsibilities over her organization’s member and is often the point person for contract negotiations.

    • Justin Katz

      See, the thing is: That’s a difference of “schools of choice.” If parents want to send their kids to a school like that, then they can, or not, and if they don’t, the school will go out of business.

      That dynamic and that accountability changes everything.

      • Joe Smith it’s okay for a school of choice (that includes the state schools by the way like the Met) to have the same conflicts of interest for oversight committee members that you just (rightly) criticized a traditional school district board for having simply because the *parents* can chose to opt out of going to that school district?

        Geez, by that standard, let’s not have any public accountability and transparency laws then for those schools? Why should ethics laws apply to schools of choice? If there are unethical things going on, parents will stop going. Oh wait, some of those board members are the parents and teachers..or the non-profit sponsor board members.

        I didn’t realize that only *parents* in this case can represent the best interest of *taxpayers* when it come to schools of choice – but not so when it comes to traditional schools.

        Citizens of a traditional school district can at least vote out a member even if the law doesn’t preclude membership due to highly suspect third party conflicts – no such luck for the citizens who send millions of dollars to schools of choice. They have to rely on unelected bureaucrats…or I guess parents by your reasoning (seems a bit of moral hazard issue there).

        • Justin Katz

          Well… yeah. What’s the concern with the conflict? That the leaders won’t do what is best for the kids. Market pressures ensure that the school has to produce when the families have a choice. When the school must be funded, there is no direct accountability, so ensuring good behavior by some other means is more important.

          • Joe Smith

            Market pressure work in competitive markets – ones with transparency of information, ease of entry and exit of resources, lots of buyers, ease of entry by different sellers. It also work when the good is homogeneous.

            Not so with education. For example, you would expect that the first schools to be in trouble would be the
            worst schools, the ones with the worst academic performance. By your thought, the “direct accountability” should led to buyers walking away and forcing the seller to “improve” or “exit.” You just don’t see that, either nationally in places with very high charter / choice options or even here in RI – even more so with the on-line/hybrid schools.

            And that certainly doesn’t lead to “better” behavior – like other monopolies (or in this case oligopolies), you simply get monopolistic type behaviors, albeit of a different flavor than traditional schools.


          • Justin Katz

            I don’t think the “you just don’t see that” argument works in this case, because government schools are already a distorting market with a long reign. The key problems we have with public education are prone to resist change (e.g., unions), so the amount of adjustment responsive to the market will be limited… until it’s not, because school districts get over the threshold where they address the most challenging problems.