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.

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