Consolidation Becomes a Battle for Power in North Kingstown

With several of Rhode Island’s cities and towns reaching financial precipices, calls for systemic change are gaining volume among residents across the state.  Poor management and misfortune can explain some of the difference between municipalities on the edge and those nearing it, but as the pension crisis illustrates, much of the state’s trouble is structural.

One change of structure with increasing credibility is consolidation of services and management functions.  As cities and towns move toward that efficient ideal, however, they may find the details getting in the way.

In North Kingstown, consolidation has turned into a power struggle, with the superintendent of schools offering a proposal that would give him majority authority over shared services.  Meanwhile, a separate proposal before the school committee this evening would link administrators’ salaries directly to teachers’ collective bargaining.

On March 13, the North Kingstown School Committee voted 4-1 to approve Superintendent Philip Auger’s proposal to consolidate three director roles: The town and school department would share a finance/administrative director, an information technology director, and a buildings and grounds foreman.  By its apportionment of responsibilities, however, the proposal would give the school department final control over the three critical positions.

The school department would have the sole authority to hire the administrative and IT directors and would share the hire authority with the municipal government for the buildings and grounds director.  The two sides of the town government would share pay and oversight responsibilities according to their percentages of the town budget — 65% schools and 35% municipal.

With regard to the ability to terminate directors, the schools would maintain the 65:35 advantage over the rest of town government.  Schools would also be permitted to cancel grounds keeping services from the town as if they were contracted from an outside company.

In the email that presented his proposal to Town Manager Michael Embury and the town council, Supt. Auger noted that the unusual confluence of vacancies in the three roles led him to “move now” despite his preference to wait.  At present, the schools’ facilities superintendent role is vacant.  The schools’ director of administration, Ned Draper, gave his notice in February and officially left his post this past Sunday.

The IT vacancy will be on the town side, with the departure of Director Jason Albuquerque.  During his time in town, Albuquerque has upgraded municipal technology and expanded capacity in order to offer support services to the nearby town of Exeter.

According to Jim McGwin, president of the North Kingstown Taxpayers Organization, these activities have won Albuquerque “national awards for his innovative collaboration efforts.”  McGwin tells the Current that he puts the blame for the IT director’s departure on school department resistance to “five studies that have recommended school and town consolidation” and the friction that followed.

With consolidation stirring local tempers, Supt. Auger has also put forward a proposal to directly link his salary and those of his administrative staff directly to the pay rate of step 10 teachers.  His $138,000 rate of pay, for example, would be defined as 1.89 of the current step 10 salary of $72,949.  If the teachers’ union negotiates raises (with Auger sitting on the other side of the table with the school committee team), then all administrators would see proportional increases in pay, as well.  Furthermore, with every two years of employment, each administrator’s ratio would increase by 0.01, capped after twenty years.

The policy is scheduled for a school committee vote tonight, as is the appointment of a new director of administrative services at a salary of $110,000, or 1.51 of teachers’ step 10.  All salaries set under the policy will be subject to change in the near future, as the National Education Association North Kingstown negotiates its contract after the next school year.

Responding to the Current’s request for clarification, Superintendent Auger asserted that, to his knowledge, “most districts have this sort of pay scale for leadership that works off of a top step teacher salary.”  His salary was determined in that manner, he said, when he served as Assistant Principal for Teaching and Learning at Chariho High School, from 2000 to 2009.

However, John Pini, executive director of the Rhode Island School Superintendents’ Association, tells the Current that he is aware of “no superintendents in Rhode Island whose salaries are directly linked to teachers’ salaries.”

Barry Ricci, who has been the superintendent of the Chariho School Department since 2005, describes the district’s method differently.  According to Ricci, administrators’ salaries are adjusted to the regional average for their positions every three years, after the teachers’ salary scale has been negotiated.  During the years between adjustments, administrator pay does track with that of teachers, but there are no automatic increases of the ratio.  Furthermore, if administrators’ salaries exceed the regional average, they are held at their current rate until it equalizes.

If the school committee approves Auger’s policy, future contracts for administrators would simply refer to it.  And the ratio would not be readjusted with each contract.

Even if Auger’s proposal is unique, municipal leaders are concerned that the culture of school management in the state will eliminate the benefits of consolidation.  In North Kingstown, the superintendent’s consolidation plan would save an estimated $219,125.  However, it would increase his relative control, and the power of the school committee, over town operations.

Jason Albuquerque thinks consolidation ought to turn in the opposite direction.  As he prepares for his transition to the private sector, Albuquerque laments an imbalance that already exists between the two branches of local government thanks to law and regulation.  “No matter what, the town cannot force any policy on the schools,” he says, “even though ultimately the towns have the fiduciary responsibility to the constituents.”

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