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Narragansett School Committee hashes out proposed charter changes

February 27, 2012

NARRAGANSETT—The School Committee discussed the proposed charter changes last Wednesday evening which directly impact the school system and its employees. At the upcoming Feb. 27 public hearing, which will be held during the regular town council meeting, amendments regarding school committee size and the term service for members will be presented.

School Committee member Diane Nobles provided a summary of the proposed changes last Wednesday evening, including alterations to the physical structure of the charter amendments as they are seen on the page itself.

“We want to try and standardize the language throughout the document,” said Nobles. “In terms of reorganizing the document, the present charter is done in paragraph form with large blocks of information. To make it more reader friendly, we would break apart the paragraphs into sub-sections numbered a, b, c, and so on.”

“Throughout the present charter, mention of boards and commissions are sprinkled in different sections,” she added. “We created a brand new article 10 documenting all the commissions, and giving structure and format to how those should be viewed in terms of length and service.”

The Charter Review Commission (CRC), a five-member committee charged with making recommendations for changes to the town charter to the town council, presented its final report on September 26, 2011. They have first proposed that, ‘the term of the School Committee be a four-year term instead of the present two-year term and that it be a staggered term instead of the present uniform term.’

“The main reason for this change is that it aligns us with the policies of other school committees across the state,” said Nobles. “[The amendment] seemed to fit more the nature of the work school committees do in maintaining and improving an entire school system. It gives you a longer perspective as opposed to a two-year term, and helps to develop a long-term policy better that provides better education for all of our students.”

School Committee Chair Tammy McNeiece and Narragansett Superintendent of Schools Katherine Sipala expressed concerns with the change to a four-year, staggered term for School Committee members.

“I am mixed,” said McNeiece. “I like the idea of a staggered term because losing all of the members is worrisome, and you have to have that continuity in vision for the school district. I am concerned that if term is stretched to four years, and there is a school committee member with a specific agenda and doesn’t have the best interests of the school district in mind, we would be doing our students a disservice.”
The CRC has also proposed changes to the language on vacancies in the School Committee, an amendment which is contingent upon the approval of the four-year, staggered term recommendation.

The CRC suggested that ‘in the event of a vacancy on the School Committee,’ the town council ‘may in their discretion fill the unexpired term. If the vacancy occurs more than three years prior to the holding of the next regular town election, the Town Council shall within 30 days after the vacancy occurs appoint a person to fulfill the unexpired term.’
The reasoning provided by the CRC for the change was that it provides flexibility by changing the ‘shall be filled’ portion to ‘may be filled,’ and provides ‘structural guidance’ to the town council in the event of a vacancy. The School Committee debated this amendment as well.

“My concern is with the vacancy language, and we have had two instances here already handled very differently,” said Sipala. “There is a lot of unknown in the language.”

“I think the present statement is fine if it is interpreted as is, but there is a lot of debate about the meaning of the words,” said Nobles.

The School Committee also discussed the merits of changing the required purchasing power of the town for competitive bids from $2,500 to $20,000, an amendment which was discussed at the February 6 public hearing on charter changes. The proposed wording reads, ‘Sec. 6-4-3 Competitive Bidding: the award of any purchase or contract of twenty thousand dollars ($20,000) or more shall be subject to the approval of the council or school committee.’

“That $2,500 number is pretty common throughout Rhode Island and was promulgated in the 1950’s,” said Town Manager Grady Miller at the February 6 meeting. “It has not changed since 1958.”

The reasons behind the increase presented by the CRC included the reduction of duplication and paperwork, and the establishment of a more reasonable dollar amount threshold. The change also provides for greater operational efficiency among town departments, and acknowledges a consensus request of the town manager and department heads.

“We came up with a number here, $20,000, and it was argued about for quite some time,” said Michael Riley, Chair of the CRC at the February 6 public hearing. “The basic tenor of the idea is that we shouldn’t have a number that is 20 years old. The $20,000 is significantly higher than the old number, and it was unanimous [among Commission members] that we shouldn’t have the old number.”

A number of school committee members felt that the $20,0000 threshold was too high to allow for the purchasing power of the town council or school committee.

“I think it was a rather large leap and I don’t think we will see it in the charter’s final form,” said Nobles.

The School Committee welcomed the process of resolving their questions and those of the public during the charter review process, and hopes to come to a reasonable consensus on the proposed changes.

“I think we have to weigh the pluses and minuses [of the charter changes], and the public’s input is very important because it directly affects them,” said Sipala.

Southern Rhode Island Newspapers
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