Paula Whitford to serve as new school committee chair
SOUTH KINGSTOWN — School Committee Chair Emily Cummiskey stepped down from her leadership positions on Tuesday, amidst inflammatory debates about how race and gender is discussed in the classroom.
While Cummiskey will remain on the committee and continue to volunteer her time in service to the district, she shared that “stepping back as chair and letting somebody else move forward” would be the best thing for the district “as we try to come together as a committee, as a community.”
“It feels like the right thing to do in my heart,” Cummiskey said.
Her resignation from this leadership position came in the wake of last week’s hotly debated agenda item — which placed South Kingstown amongst national headlines and at the epicenter of the nation’s debate around critical race theory.
Beginning in late April, Nicole Solas of Wakefield began submitting Access to Public Record Act (APRA) requests to the school districts on a wide array of topics — many of which concerned themselves with the ways in which equity, race and gender were being discussed in the classroom.
Over the past two months, Solas has filed more than 200 requests — prompting the district to pursue legal action against the mother of a soon-to-be kindergarten student.
Solas and many others in the audience viewed the agenda item as a means to humiliate her and avoid transparency in the schools’ curriculum, but administrators claim the volume of requests is now putting the district in crisis.
Though the committee ultimately decided to pursue mediation before pushing forward with any litigation against Solas, Superintendent Linda Savastano and Cummiskey stressed how damaging these requests could be for the district.
“This conversation isn’t about stopping that access to public information,” the superintendent explained last week, but rather utilizing the only legal discourse available to stop the clock on the district’s legal commitment to respond to all public records requests — which is limited to 20 days per request.
Cummiskey stressed that not meeting APRA deadlines could open the school district up to an investigation from the attorney general’s office and heavy litigation fines — which she fears could be to the tune of millions of dollars.
The committee’s agenda item considering legal action against Solas made its way onto Fox News the morning of the meeting, and as chair of the public body, Cummiskey was reached out to for comment.
The public statements she shared with the media were crafted with the help of the district’s legal counsel and a public relations firm, she explained during Tuesday night’s meeting.
The statement Cummiskey made last week stressed access to public information as one of the district’s core values, but also called the requests “over-the-top, even including APRA requests of their previous APRA requests.”
The sheer volume of request were not only taking time and resources away from other important day-to-day functions, she said but were being made as a ways to derail the committee’s “policy efforts to make our schools more equitable, inclusive, and empowering by eradicating any harmful practices or prejudices through equity and anti-racism teachings.”
“It’s disappointing, and extremely disheartening, to see an individual, particularly one without a child in our schools, work so hard to harm these efforts, and in turn, send a message to our students and families that anti-racism education is not valued,” the statement had continued. “Racism and hate have no place in our district. Now, more than ever, we see just how important equity and anti-racism curriculum is for our students.”
During Tuesday night’s meeting, Cummiskey said she takes full responsibility for approving what she called an “inflammatory” agenda item, and stressed that everyone’s reaction to the unprecedented situation was in an effort to protect the district.
Since joining the committee, Cummiskey said she’s done her best “to be fair, to be honest, to be transparent and to do my best to put kids at the forefront of every single decision.”
“I believe in equity, I believe in anti-racism — so I made those statements the [public relations] firm gave to me to make,” she added. “They encouraged me not to follow up, not to respond, and I followed that advice.”
School committee member Sarah Markey thanked Cummiskey for her leadership during these contentious times, taking a moment to acknowledge the number of threatening emails and messages Cummiskey and her family have recently received.
“I think it’s very hard to be the chair of any governing body during a contentious time, and what you did or said around the orchestrated campaign against our commitment towards anti-racism is not of concern to me,” Markey said. “Because, in fact, I think we should stand up to bullies.”
“Particularly ones who are coming after the basic humanity of our students, based on their race or ethnicity,” she added. “I appreciate you.”
School Committee Vice Chair Christie Fish also publicly extended her gratitude to the chair, emphasizing the “very, very difficult position” they’ve all been placed in, though especially Cummiskey.
“Don’t let it go unnoticed how much you have committed yourself to this school, to this district and to this committee,” Fish said. “Because it has been a lot. A lot. And I appreciate that.”
In her place, a consensus that freshmen committee member Paula Whitford will serve as the new chair. Markey was the first to voice her public support for Whitford stepping into this new role, though her sentiments were echoed by the majority of the committee.
“Even when Paula and I don’t agree, I trust her immensely, and know she has the right interests at heart, and values,” Markey said. “And I suspect all of us on the school committee feel that way.”
“It’s a terrible thing to have to do, to be the chair, in some ways, but I do feel like you have the kind of leadership ability, Paula, that could really help up be kinder to each other, be more collaborative and really take the next step forward as a distinct and a team,” she added.
School committee member Kate Macinanti acknowledged that she and Markey don’t often agree, but that she too could give her full-hearted support of Whitford in this leadership role.
“I believe that you are a uniting force,” Macinanti told Whitford. “I believe that you’re fully capable of sitting in this seat, and as long as you have a strong co-chair and a cohesive, cooperative board behind you, you will do great things.”
“I think we’ll finally start to heal as a community,” she added.
Fish agreed with the nomination, but also being so new, she stated that she was happy to turn the co-chair position over to someone with more experience and someone who could better support Whitford
“I also feel strongly about you being the chair, but I want to make sure you have the appropriate support that you need,” Fish said.
School committee member Melissa Boyd, who is also new to the committee, expressed discomfort with freshman committee members sitting in these positions, and ultimately voted against Whitford taking over the role.
School committee member Michelle Brousseau also voted against Whitford taking up the role of chair, but the school committee was able to reach unanimous consensus afterwards that her vast institutional knowledge and experience made her the perfect candidate to take up the co-chair role.
Whitford expressed thanks to her fellow committee members for their vote of confidence, and shared that her own confidence has grown considerably since being elected to public office. Whitford shared that she has faith in herself that she’ll be able to move the community “forward in the right direction.”
Macinanti was briefly considered for the role of vice chair, but Fish suggested Brousseau be considered for the role as well. Markey and Fish both expressed their admiration for the ways in which Macinanti puts the children of the district first, but Macinanti was also in agreement that Brousseau brings a considerable amount of experience to the table, and extended a full endorsement.
“I think the two of you together would make a beautiful team,” Cummiskey told Whitford and Brousseau. “I think you have very different things to bring to the table as chair and co-chair working together.”