The Whole Sordid Rhode Island Way in East Greenwich


As if to dare me to decry nepotism when it happens in more-Republican East Greenwich, as opposed to Woonsocket, somebody sent me a link to this story on East Greenwich News:

The new 40-hour-a-year position of performing arts coordinator has been filled by Megan Catelli, a music teacher at Cole Middle School and daughter of School Committee member Mary Ellen Winters. Nina Reiner, an art teacher, was named the visual arts coordinator. Both positions pay $2,000.

The School Committee votes on every job hire in the district. Winters, who recused herself from the vote at a meeting Sept. 16, was a strong proponent of creating such a position.

My first thought was, “He don’t know me very well, do he?”  Bad government is bad government, and if the people doing it undermine conservative arguments even more because they’re supposed to represent those arguments, that’s even worse.

My second thought was how well the East Greenwich story represents the whole sordid mess that is the Rhode Island way of operating schools and government.

Of course there’s the impropriety of a school committee member’s child being on the payroll of the school district.  On the surface, it looks like the school committee has covered a few more bases than did Woonsocket Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt.  They took a public vote, presumably followed rules for announcing jobs, and Winters recused herself from the vote.

Still, I like to use the “nationwide” test for judging how these things look.    After a nationwide search, the school committee hired… the daughter of one of its members.  Sure.  That looks fair.

The next layer of the Rhode Island Way makes things worse — namely, the fact that the Code of Ethics might not forbid an action like this.  So, a school committee member steps away from her seat for a single vote, and that somehow magically removes all conflict of interest, as if the other members aren’t influenced by the relationship.

Indeed, the article points out that another school committee member has a son working for the district.  What do you suppose might have been the consequences for Winters’s daughter if the job for committee member Susan Records’s son hadn’t be approved a few years ago?

The Code of Ethics uses the term “appearance of impropriety” a number of times.  The Code’s purpose, in other words, is to ensure not only that Rhode Island officials are trustworthy, but also that Rhode Islanders feel trust in their government.  A practice of mutual recusals doesn’t exactly build trust and confidence.

That said, Winters may have violated Rhode Island General Law 36-14-5(d) when (as the article reports) she advocated for creating the position that her daughter would later take.  I note, in particular, that a search of the Ethics Commission’s site doesn’t turn up any requests for guidance from Winters, which would have been an additional way in which she could have covered her bases.   At this point, the question is whether it was “reasonably foreseeable” that things would happen as they did, and it’s difficult to see how it wasn’t.

The East Greenwich case goes even a step deeper into the swamp of what’s wrong with Rhode Island:

“I was first exposed to the topic of visual and performing arts by Deidre Gifford, shortly after my joining the SC back in 2010,” said [School Committee Chairman David] Green via email. “She noted, and was supported in conversation by Mary Ellen, that in previous years EGHS enjoyed the benefit of having a staff member who took it upon themselves to aggressively support, provide coordination, and advocate for the program(s). As I understand, this was largely, or totally a volunteer activity – a labor of love for the individual.”

After that teacher left the district, Green said, the arts programs “saw a decline.”

The question that comes to mind is:  What about the East Greenwich school system kept some other teacher from stepping in to fill the void created for such a valuable role?  Honestly, in private-sector business (including private schools), employees undertake tasks not directly in their job descriptions to make their organizations successful.  Individuals may accept particular roles in order to increase their own profiles or to make themselves more valuable to the organization or just because the work has to be done.

What about the culture of government schools in East Greenwich led its employees to watch their arts program go into “decline,” rather than step up and salvage it for the students?

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