SOUTH KINGSTOWN – Accusations from teachers and taxpayers that Superintendent Dr. Kristen Stringfellow is controlling the school committee hung in the air Tuesday night.
“It’s hard not to consider the superintendent doesn’t have an agenda of her own, who’s interest is not the education of students in South Kingstown but to serve out her contract and to lay out the foundation for another job elsewhere,” Stephen Burke, a South Kingstown resident said.
The school committee defended Stringfellow, whom they hired in 2009.
“I feel as a member of the school committee a responsibility to passing policy, a responsibility to my executive session decisions and inescapably the concept that three lives were tremendously affected. I feel responsible every moment for this,” Vice chairperson Dr. Anthony Mega said.
“I’m quite confident everyone at this table shares in the responsibility,” Chairwoman Maureen Cotter said.
The distrust between the National Education Association–South Kingstown (NEA-SK) and the school department has escalated after the school committee accepted Stringfellow’s recommendation on Sunday, Feb. 26 to terminate three untenured special education teachers, Paula Rekos, Francesca Shiels and Kerry Hall for “unsatisfactory” performance. The three layoffs are separate from the 49 teachers who did not have their contracts renewed for next year due to budgetary concerns.
The school committee cited the Human Capital Policy adopted last June as justification for their decision. The policy states, “the district maintains its right not to renew non-tenured teachers based upon a good-faith assessment by administration that better teachers are available.” NEA-SK is now asking for that good faith assessment after they believe the teachers only received position recommendations from parents, teachers and students.
The strained relationship between teachers and their boss began last August when the roughly 300 NEA-SK members took a vote of no confidence against Stringfellow, citing poor communication and leadership. The vote followed tense contract negotiations, in which the teachers agreed to no pay increases and to contribute up to 20 percent for healthcare to save the district $755,000.
After filling the cafeteria at the West Kingston Elementary School two weeks ago to demand why the school committee fired the three teachers, the union showed up in full force again on Tuesday.
Over the past two weeks, union members have suggested that the school committee accepted Stringfellow’s recommendation to terminate the three teachers without seeing evidence of their poor performance.
“Is it true the school committee has not been advised of the facts?” Burke said. “How can you accept the superintendent’s recommendation if you didn’t have the facts?”
“It’s going to get worse until the school committee stands up and does something,” Stephen Enright, a teacher said. “You’re allowing the administration to make choices that are not transparent or in the best interest of the schools.”
To obtain evidence, the three teachers have to appeal to the school committee and administration.
On Sunday, school committee member Stephen Mueller said, “If they appeal and I hope they do, we’ll have the opportunity to look at all the evidence.”
South Kingstown High School science teacher Mary Kutcher asked the school committee to be more transparent and accountable.
“When the last meeting was called, it gives the appearance of being sneaky,” Kutcher said. “We all know why three teachers were let go. They can be replaced by first year teachers who can be paid less to save money. We all know why the fifth grade moved to Broad Rock Middle School. It wasn’t to create space, but to save money. Right now we’re left to think the worst.”
“Human capital is a terrible phrase,” Jonathan Daly LaBelle, a resident said. “This isn’t a business. You’re educating our children. To think of [teachers] as a business term lets everyone know what the thinking is.”
To accommodate roughly 10 speakers, who asked the school committee to reconsider their decision, the committee extended public comment 30 minutes.
“When I first heard of the letter sent to my mother, I was dumbfounded,” John Rekos, son of Paula Rekos said. “I am proud of my mother for fulfilling her calling. Unfortunately, her drive and inspiration has been depreciated by Dr. Stringfellow, who never personally met my mother. This letter impacted more than just one person. It’s harmful to the whole school community.”
Renee Snow said her 8th grade son struggled in school until he had one of the three fired teachers.
“He’s had such strides in his life all because the dedication of such great teachers,” Snow said. “I can’t say that all teachers are good, but my son has a good teacher this year. She’s a teacher who’s allowed my son to prosper. I want you to ask my son if he can get better. He can’t.”