By TRACEY O’NEILL
Special to the Standard
NORTH KINGSTOWN – “There is a symptomatic process in place to not clearly identify the issues,” said School Committee member Bill Mudge in phone interview this week. “There is a lack of clarity on the issues before us and no one wants to address the problems entirely.”
Referring to the continued discord among School Committee members, the Town Council and administration, Mudge expressed his frustration with what he considers a serious deficiency with open government and transparency. Calling attention to the current situation with the 26 ESP workers who were cut in June, he termed the negotiation process an unfair representation of the right and ability to exercise free speech.
An Open Meetings violation was asserted by Mudge as a result of what he calls the committee’s refusal to consider additional concessions submitted by the Union. Those concessions, as discussed in a June 26 Executive Session meeting that Mudge chose not to attend, are the subject of only one of the member’s issues with the process.
“[They] made the decision not to consider the information given to them,” Mudge said. “That was a violation. That information should have been presented to the public.”
On August 12, Mudge submitted his concerns and allegations in a letter to the State Attorney General’s office. His letter stated in part, “I am filing the following OMA complaints against the North Kingstown School Committee and the Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Auger. Please be advised that the violations noted herein may impact ongoing labor relations disputes between the North Kingstown School Committee and its NKESP union members.”
“He is out of his mind with trying to escalate problems,” responded Phil Auger, Superintendent of Schools in phone interview. “He is accusing me and the committee of no transparency when he walked out of the meeting. He makes these accusations all the time. Nothing could be farther from the truth.”
Referring to the antagonistic and disruptive nature of School Committee meetings, Auger credits Mudge with chronic interruptions, argumentative verbal attacks and prose. “[He] wants to have a cause,” added Auger. “If anything, with Mr. Mudge, it only continues to get worse.
Dr. Auger noted that he has tried to remedy the adversarial relationship between the School Committee member and the administration, meeting with Mudge individually to address his concerns and provide requested information.
“There are times when we aren’t all in agreement,” said Auger. “We as members disagree, but we do it respectfully. Mr. Mudge approaches things differently.”
Mudge’s detailed complaint lists six violations including multiple actions that are alleged violations of the North Kingstown School Committee Policy “BE” affirming the requirement that all meetings be called, scheduled and formally announced. Following a letter sent to Judge Brian Stern in July, the submissions by Mudge are an attempt to bring light to a process he feels is riddled by stagnation, lack of concrete information and immediacy in action.
“There are so many issues to be addressed. Each one has to be carefully examined and considered,” Mudge explained. “For instance, during the budget process, priorities kept changing, items moving from low priority to the top of the list. Things got lost - priorities.”
A major concern was what Mudge termed the political nature of the changes being made. As budget considerations and constraints were presented, the message became diluted and the root cause was rendered down in numbers. He averred that cuts and reductions were made without proper vetting of the numbers or alternate resolutions being explored.
Mudge cautioned against relying on the numbers put forth at school committee meetings, too. “The budget numbers keep changing. We go from having a deficit and commencing reduction discussions to the current surplus. I don’t think those numbers are correct, either. I think the surplus is double what we’re being told.”
The surplus of $460,000 reported in August combined with the fund balance does almost double the numbers coming in at $870k, per the Superintendent. The surplus fund, a buffer and emergency needs fund is generally set aside for Capital Improvement Projects (CIP) and serves to provide the School Department with monetary allowances for emergent repairs and projects. It is not meant to provide funding for daily operational expenses.
“This is not renewable funding,” Auger said. “You can’t depend upon it for operational expenses. If it is used this year for operational expenses such as ESP, teacher salaries or bussing, the funding won’t be there next year and there won’t be any money for emergency projects, either.”
The two men and committee members are unanimously in agreement on one point. The number of School Committee members should not be reduced from 7 to 5.
The answer, according to Auger is to reduce the discord of the committee through responsible voting practices. “I would hope that voters would come out to a meeting and watch the process before going to the polls. Identify the dysfunction and then don’t vote for it.”
Further suggestions from the Superintendent included the necessity to work more closely with the Town Council on budget and important items through work sessions and transparency throughout the fiscal year, instead of the three month period when budget passage is underway.
When asked his opinion of the Town Council’s recommendation Mudge was opposed. “It’s not the number of members that is important. It’s doing the job and this job takes a lot of time.