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Carmudgeon's Corner: Thornton’s desire to leave NK was inevitable

July 6, 2011

Well, it’s finally happened. By the time you read this we’ll know whether Dr. Phil Thornton is going to stick around as the superintendent of North Kingstown schools.
He came into the job as the unanimous choice of the school committee with members like Melvoid Benson and the late Doug Roth singing his praises. Dr. Thornton has made it plain that if he goes out it will be largely due to the rancorous relationship with “some members” of the committee.
Those members are Bill Mudge, who thinks anything agreed to previously by the other five members of the school committee should be renegotiated now that he has been re-elected to that body, and Joe Thompson, who makes no bones about the fact that he ran for office because he was livid at the firing of Gerry Foley as principal of NKHS.
Mr. Mudge has constantly harassed Superintendent Thornton for analyses and data that he deems necessary to ensure “transparency”. In his last e-mail exchange with the superintendent, Mudge claimed that state law, the town charter, RIDE regulations and school department policy entitled him to any information he deemed necessary to protect “the taxpayers”. Dr. Thornton replied that he worked for the school committee as a body–not its individual members–and that Mudge would have to get a majority of the committee to agree that the data should be provided.
I asked Bill Mudge to cite the section of the general laws, provision of the town charter, state regulations or policy of the school district he was using as his authority. I have yet to receive an answer.
Joe Thompson, a nice-enough guy who campaigned very hard, is given to broad statements but comes up short when asked for details such as what budget cuts he would propose. A political novice, Mr. Thompson often floats ideas that have been thoroughly vetted in the past and discarded. He says he is simply “brainstorming”.
As chairman of the town audit committee and its liaison to the school department I have found Dr. Thornton to be accessible, open to suggestion, responsive and fiscally aware. Although the chairman of the NKGOP disagrees with me, I believe the superintendent is nonpartisan.
Mark Zaccaria claims the superintendent turned down several offers to address the NKGOP. Given that the audience would include former superintendent Jim Halley and Joe Thompson, I’m not surprised.

* Last Friday Governor Chafee announced Janice De Frances as his choice to head DCYF. Dr. De Frances’ name should be familiar to North Kingstown residents. She served as a member, vice chair and chairperson of the North Kingstown school committee.
Most notably while on the school committee Dr. De Frances’ daughter attended an exclusive, boarding prep school in Vermont with the taxpayers picking up the $21,000 per year tab. This out-of-state placement was approved by former superintendent Jim Halley and his director of special education Dan MacGregor. Supposedly, Dr. De Frances’ daughter had “special needs” that couldn’t be met at NKHS or anywhere else in Rhode Island.
However it was discovered that The Putney School website and application form clearly stated that students with special needs should apply elsewhere. Unfortunately, when confronted with these facts Drs. Halley and MacGregor clammed up as did Dr. De Frances citing “privacy concerns”.
It is noteworthy that Janice De Frances was a consistent supporter of special ed director MacGregor who had no ethical concerns about billing North Kingstown taxpayers for his mileage incurred while fee-based consulting with two other schools while on NK time. She also supported Superintendent Halley, who approved MacGregor’s expense reports and was accused himself of misappropriating a quarter million federal dollars earmarked for special needs students.
Frankly, when this whole tawdry business was revealed, I was surprised that Dr. De Frances didn’t resign from the school committee. Political operatives from both parties told me that the reason was because if she stepped down, Bill Mudge, who was the next highest vote getter in the previous school committee election, would take her place. Neither political party wanted to that to happen. Ironically, it was Mr. Mudge who blew the whistle on the tuition hustle.
Governor Chafee says Janice De Frances, who has headed up the Harmony School in Rhode Island since 2006, is the very best choice to head DCYF. I wonder how many kids in state care will be sent to out-of-state private boarding schools on her watch?

* I remember Barak Obama, while a candidate for president, saying that, when confronted with a difficult choice, politicians appoint a committee or commission to study the problem. He went on to say there would be none of that in his administration.
General Treasurer Gina Raimondo, who drew many cheers from onlookers at the North Kingstown Memorial Day parade, has named a “pension advisory board” which is to meet during the summer and come up with recommendations before the October special session of the legislature to deal with the pension crisis.
The pension problem has been studied to death and there has been very little done because the choices are politically unpalatable in the union-dominated legislature.
Mrs. Raimondo’s board will accomplish very little simply because by its very nature pension reform is an adversarial situation. One-third of the board is made up of union operatives whose sole interest is in seeing the status quo maintained. Anyone who expects J. Michael Downey and Phillip Keefe, presidents of two of the most radical labor unions, Robert Walsh and John Maguire of the teachers’ unions to seek consensus in a collegial atmosphere is simply naïve.
There is only one mayor and one business executive on the board. The other six are academics, consultants, former advisors in the Clinton and Obama administrations and hard-core Democrat Richard Licht who heads up Governor Chafee’s Department of Administration.
The unions shouldn’t even be at this table. Their representatives will oppose anything that approaches true pension reform. If and when recommendations for reform are presented to the general treasurer and then to the legislature, the unions will fight them. Finally, in the unlikely event that real pension reform passes the legislature and is signed by the governor, the unions will seek redress in the courts as they are doing at this very moment over the modest changes put through at the end of the Carcieri administration.

Richard August is a North Kingstown resident and a regular contributor to the Standard Times. His opinions are his own. He can be reached at richardjaugust@yahoo.com.

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