What began as a request for a list of the members chosen to serve on the subcommittee to select Woonsocket's new superintendent, has led to a lesson in open government for the Woonsocket Education Department.
At Wednesday night's School Committee meeting, Attorney Richard Ackerman delivered the opinion of the State Attorney General's office regarding whether or not subcommittees are subject to the Open Meetings Act. His brief presentation of the much-debated verdict brought laughter from the audience of parents and educators.
"They are." Ackerman said.
The opinion was given as an answer to a conflict which first began in June when committee members Vimala Phongsavanh and Anita McGuire-Forcier questioned the process for hiring an interim superintendent to replace Dr. Robert Gerardi, who left Woonsocket for a position in Maynard, MA.
As members of the subcommittee that handles matters related to personnel, committee members Eleanor Nadeau and Linda Majewki facilitated the process which resulted in the recommendation of Susan Lusi as Gerardi's short-term replacement. At the June 8 meeting of the committee, Phongsavanh pointed out that she was expected to vote on Lusi's hire, but she had yet to see the candidate's resume.
McGuire-Forcier, meanwhile, went to the McFee Administration building, and researched all of the candidates independently, a procedure which Nadeau alleged was "highly improper."
"Information needs to be shared," said McGuire-Forcier of the initial process. "Subcommittees are open to the public."
Though Lusi ultimately turned down the position for a longer interim spot in Providence, the incident spawned a debate regarding the laws governing subcommittees that was to last for more than three months.
Phongsavanh and McGuire-Forcier voted against , who ultimately ended up serving the district over the summer, Dr. Collette Trailor, questioning the need for selecting a high-paid interim ($538 a day,) over a temporary increase of the duties of the Director of Instruction and Administration, Marc Garceau.
The conflict in the department only escalated throughout the search for a permanent replacement. As Majewski and Nadeau chose education leaders and members of the public to serve on a "search subcommittee" slated to interview potential hires, Phongsavanh alleged that the group was being hand-picked and pointed out that the without committee approval.
Her requests for the list of search subcommittee members in early July did not produce immediate results. At the July 13 School Committee meeting, Nadeau and Majewski stated that the list of search committee members would be made public once it was finalized. But on July 22, when , Phongsavanh had still not received the document.
The incident prompted to the committee regarding the Open Meetings Act (OMA.) OMA is a chapter of the Rhode Island General Laws designed to ensure that government actions are conducted in an open manner to allow public participation in government. When Phongsavanh finally received the list of search subcommittee members in an email labeled "confidential," to the media.
Committee Chairman Marc Dubois initially stated that he did not believe OMA, which requires that all meeting agendas of government bodies be made public and that the minutes of all meetings be kept, applied to the search subcommittee. Nadeau said a desire for privacy among 16 members of the committee was her reason for expecting confidentiality.
The debate continued even after as Woonsocket's new superintendent. During a School Committee meeting on Aug. 24, Alex Kithes, a member of the search subcommittee that had chosen Donoyan, presented his findings regarding the common processes of subcommittees across the state.
Of the 23 districts he was able to contact, "Only two of them, less than 9% have conducted their superintendent search entirely in open session," Kithes told the committee. 65% had conducted all of their meetings in closed session. "While the actions of other committees do not necessarily constitute law, I'd be hard pressed to argue that our superintendent search process was in any way inappropriate or illegal, at least in the State of Rhode Island."
With the Attorney General's opinion finally given Wednesday night, Phongsavanh used the opportunity to deliver a presentation on open government and recommend that the department limit the use of subcommittees. Woonsocket currently has 19 subcommittees addressing everything from school uniforms to technology, a system Phongsavanh described as inefficient.
The committeewoman delivered a map for open government in education Wednesday night including the "who, what and how" to implement it. Her recommendations included a reorganization of subcommittees and the development of a policy for how subcommittees operate. A pdf of her presentation is attached above.
"We need to have a uniform policy for how subcommittees work," Phongsavanh said. "There aren't rules, so we can follow them, and then future school committees can follow them."
Editor's note: In the fourth to last paragraph, the word "highly," has been changed to "hard," to properly reflect the comments of Alex Kithes.