NORTH KINGSTOWN—Three weeks of speculation over whether or not Superintendent Dr. Phillip Thornton would indeed leave the North Kingstown School Department came to a conclusion Monday night as the NK School Committee announced it had formally received Thornton’s letter of resignation and, in a quick move meant to speed up the process of finding his replacement, the committee appointed Dr. Philip Auger on an interim basis.
By all accounts, Auger will be the committee’s pick to take over the vacant position but rather than appoint him as the superintendent outright—as member Bill Mudge suggested at Monday’s meeting—the committee voted to hold off on a final decision until it has had the chance to formally, and publicly, interview the man who served as Thornton’s assistant and the district’s curriculum director for two years.
“I want to take a minute to say I think we were very fortunate to have Dr. Thornton here,” committee member Lynda Avanzato said Monday. “He did a wonderful job and got this district going in the right direction. He did some great, wonderful work. I also think we’re very fortunate to have Dr. Auger here and we’re in a position with him having a superintendent certificate where we got lucky.”
“I believe he has all the qualifications we’re looking for,” Mudge said of Auger. “He’s been in North Kingstown for 16 years, he’s a resident and he has what we call a ‘stake in the game’. He worked very closely as the curriculum director and assistant superintendent with Dr. Thornton and I’m sure Dr. Thornton would give him the highest recommendation. I think we have kind of a gem under our noses.”
Monday’s meeting was the result of Thornton’s decision to leave North Kingstown for a vacant superintendency with the Cumberland School Department after what he called “major philosophical differences” with several members of the School Committee.
Thornton’s decision to seek employment outside of North Kingstown came following a long and contentious budget process in which he was scrutinized and questioned by several school committee members who felt he was not being transparent about his proposed budget and suggested cuts.
Thornton was selected as one of two finalists from a pool of 27 candidates and was ultimately chosen over Nathan Bishop Middle School principal Michael Lazzareschi because of his background and experience.
“Dr. Thornton was a really straight-forward, honest guy who brought all the credentials necessary and the experience and wrestled with some of the issues that we’re wrestling with here,” Cumberland School Committee chairman Jeffrey J. Mutter said at the time of Thornton’s selection. “We just felt that he was ready from Day One and I think we felt that he was the guy who would take us to where we’re looking to go.”
Thornton announced in his letter of resignation Monday night that he had signed his employment contract with Cumberland, officially beginning the NK School Committee’s search for its fourth superintendent since 2007.
The first order of business, newly-elected committee chairperson Kim Page said, was deciding on the timeline for accepting Thornton’s resignation and appointing an interim superintendent.
The committee chose to accept Thornton’s resignation as of July 22, allowing two weeks for Thornton to bring his interim replacement up to speed and, after a relatively short debate, the committee appointed Auger for the role, citing his close working relationship with Thornton over the last two years and his expressed interest in the superintendent’s position.
The vote wasn’t unanimous, however as former chairperson Richard Welch dissented on the grounds that he felt the committee needed to take more time to study what any possible transition would be like and should do a search to find the best possible candidate available.
‘Without any search whatsoever, I cannot vote in favor of that,” Welch said of Auger’s appointment. “Dr. Auger understands this is not a personality thing with me, this is a process that I believe needs to be done. Now, people can say, and I’m not going to argue the point, that Dr. Auger is the best person available in the marketplace today. Fine. I don’t know that, the town doesn’t know that, the teachers don’t know that, the students don’t know that and the taxpayers don’t know that.”
Despite Welch’s concerns, the committee voted 5-1 both to accept the July 22nd date as the date in which Thornton would officially be released from his contract and to appoint Auger as the interim superintendent following his release.
With those two decisions out of the way, all that was left for the school committee to decide Monday was how much the district would pay Auger while he served as interim superintendent and what the search process would be.
Ultimately, the committee chose to let history decide Auger’s pay. As was the case when Thornton himself was serving as both assistant superintendent and interim superintendent two years ago, the committee will pay Auger $200 per day, in addition to his salary, to serve both roles.
Mudge expressed concerns with the arrangment, stating that if the process of appointing a permanent superintendent takes longer than expected it would prove extremely costly.
Page disagreed, however, stating that, if anything, the cost of the extra pay would pressure the school committee to act fast to fill the vacancy.
Auger’s temporary pay increase was approved 5-0, with Mudge abstaining.
Wrapping up the meeting, the committee decided to forgo setting up a search committee to find a field of candidates for the superintendent position, for the time being at least, and will instead interview Auger publically at a time to be determined.
A decision will not be made, however, until at least the first meeting following the interview, allowing time for members of the public to voice their opinions one way or the other on Auger’s potential appointment.