Bruce Waidler: S.K. School Committee – Serious Questions of Transparency & Conflict of Interest


On Tuesday, November 27, 2018, I attended the South Kingstown School Committee meeting. The recently elected Vice Chair, Sarah Markey, is also the Assistant Executive Director for the National Education Association of Rhode Island (NEARI). The vast majority of the employees working in the South Kingstown School Department are represented by this labor union.

Last year, Markey attempted to get appointed to a vacant school committee position. The School Committee asked the law firm, hired to provide legal services, to assess whether there would be issues with appointing Markey to the vacancy. The law firm issued a 6 page opinion on October 19, 2017.

The law firm concluded that “[t]he Ethics Code would appear to require that, if appointed to fill the position vacated by former Chair …, that Ms. Markey recuse herself from many, if not most matters that the Committee must address in discharging its duties, thereby impairing her ability to participate fully in the Committee’s work.” Apparently, based on this legal opinion, the Committee chose to not approve of Markey’s 2017 appointment to the School Committee.

Sarah Markey was elected to the South Kingstown School Committee on November 6, 2018. I believe five of the seven members are newly elected, including Markey. At the first School Committee meeting on November 20, 2018, Markey was elected Committee Vice Chair.

The agenda for the 11/27/2018 School Committee included termination of the contract for the legal firm providing the Committee with legal services. This is the same law firm that provided the 10/19/2017 Markey legal opinion. Markey seconded the motion to terminate the contract. [Correction edit.]

During pubic comment before the Committee vote on this matter, I expressed concern about Markey seconding the motion and participating in Committee discussions on this matter. In my opinion, Markey’s participation in this issue is a conflict of interest, particularly given the law firm’s opinion adverse to her personal interests. It also gives the appearance, in my opinion, of Committee reprisal against the law firm for having issued the adverse opinion and doing their job correctly. Other South Kingstown residents voiced their concerns.

A motion was then made, seconded and approved, to table the termination motion until, I thought, the next School Committee meeting on 12/11/2018. However, yesterday, 11/28/2018, the Committee posted notice that there will now be a meeting this Friday, 11/30/2018 at 6:00 pm. The only items on the agenda include: A. Tabled Motion to discuss termination / appointment of law firm(s); B. Termination of District law firm (s); & C. Appointment of District law firm (s).

Contrary to other Committee meetings, including the one on 11/27/2018, the agenda for Friday’s meeting does not provide for public comment.

Of even greater concern is Sarah Markey’s election to the School Committee, given her senior, full time, paid position with NEARI. I believe this will embroil the School Committee in continuous ethics complaints, detract severely from the Committee’s ability to function effectively, and, very possibly, have adverse impact on taxpayers. Also, if this can happen in South Kingstown, it can happen with school districts across the state, where labor union officials can use the election process to effectively gain control of government functions and make government policy decisions, including budgetary, favorable to their rank and file, but adverse to the taxpayers.

I want to make it very clear that I am not anti-union. Throughout my career, I have worked collaboratively and very successfully with various union officials. However, public office is a public trust and there cannot be any divided loyalty when representing the taxpayers and citizens of our community.

I urge all South Kingstown residents to attend Friday’s School Committee meeting and have your voices heard. This, of course, depends on whether the Committee, the majority of whom campaigned on transparency, permits it.

Bruce Waidler is an attorney and a resident of South Kingstown. He has a Masters in Public Administration and his C.V. includes eleven years as a Supervisory Investigator at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport.

  • Merle The Monster

    I would understand your point about the conflict of interest involving a union official better if Ms. Markey came to the school committee by appointment rather than by election. The voters apparently do not agree with you or the legal opinion expressed by the former school committee. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the legal opinion had been in favor of appointment and Ms Markey was placed on the committee. Let’s assume you ran and was elected and your first order of business was removing the law firm that had given what you thought was wrong. Would that be construed as a reprisal also?

    • steve22

      The conflict of interest exists (and is outrageously obvious) whether the position is appointed or elected. If you like analogies, try this one: Early in my career I was a supervisor at a trucking operation that employed Teamsters. Each day, one of the most critical decisions for management was to determine staffing levels. The labor was very expensive. The business levels had to support it. This election would be the equivalent of letting the local union Shop Stewart determine those daily staffing levels. The operation would have folded in a couple months.

  • Joe Smith

    Merle – it wouldn’t be, assuming your threshold for evaluating the legal counsel was just not one opinion, but the dozens (or more) a district probably gets from its legal counsel plus the other factors like cost, etc. Usually evaluating legal counsel is not the first thing a new committee takes up though.

    I sympathize with Mr. Waidler, but did he write the same letter when Sen. Sosnowski from South Kingstown who owns a family farm is made chair of the senate agriculture committee? Or when Rep Tanzi votes on issues related to her or her spouse’s occupation?

    The conflicts may be greater and more frequent for sure..but the voters of SK put in not just Markey, but the whole “gang of four” who ran on a platform that included keeping a school open, and voted out most of the incumbents. I don’t think it was a surprise to SK voters that “wow, we didn’t know she was a union rep.”

    So follow the process. File ethics complaints. Track her recusals. Find people to run against her for the next election. Elections have consequences, even for those times we may not like the outcome.