When news began to trickle out Monday afternoon that North Kingstown Superintendent Dr. Phillip Thornton was a finalist for a vacant position with the Cumberland School District, there was a variety of different ways members of the school committee could have reacted.
They could have felt surprised that Thornton would consider leaving the district after having only been on the job for a little more than two years. They could have felt dismayed that the Superintendent, a well educated and well respected administrator, would want to walk away as the district faces perhaps it’s biggest budget challenge in years with rising pension costs and falling enrollment figures.
They could also have felt angry that the man who has spent the past three months justifying his budget decisions based on the idea of “preparing for the future” never intended to stick around long enough to see the impact those decisions would have.
What they should have felt, however, was ashamed.
They should have felt ashamed that the district has become a place full of such intense animosity that top administrators would rather walk away than try to work through their differences. They should have felt ashamed that individual school committee members have let their personal feelings interfere with the goals and priorities of the district as a whole. They should have felt ashamed that their inability to find common ground has led to at least four different members reconsidering whether or not they want to even run for reelection.
Sadly, however, they were too busy pointing fingers at each other to realize that the problem is not with one side or the other but with the idea that there are sides at all.
In the past three months, as Thornton has made his way through the budget process, the level of discourse and personal attacks has ratcheted up to almost unbelievable levels.
Bill Mudge and Joe Thompson have accused Thornton of not being transparent with his budget. Larry Ceresi and Dick Welch have accused Mudge, Thomspon and Benson of trying to fight the Superintendent on every decision. Thornton himself has accused two unnamed members of the committee of inappropriately accosting a school employee at a funeral.
At every step of the way, this committee and its Superintendent have chosen to focus more on their inability to get along than the fact that they need to come together to solve what promises to be a pressing and difficult time for education in North Kingstown.
The Town Council has made it clear that it sees no need to provide the schools with more funding at a time when enrollment is dropping and with Town Manager Mike Embury already beating the drum about the problems NK will face next year with pension reform, it seems like the school district is going to have to fight long and hard for every dollar it can get next year.
But it’s hard to fight for what your district needs when you’re too busy fighting amongst yourselves.
The reaction from committee members to the news about Thornton shows, more than anything, that this committee has no intention of resolving its internal issues and will continue to bicker and yell and scream like children who are denied ice cream for dinner until at least the next election.
It makes it easy to see, then, why Thornton would want to leave in the first place.
The only question now is whether or not his departure will serve as a wakeup call to a committee in desperate need of growing up or provide them with yet another project on which they can disagree.