Failure to adhere to policy created 'unnecessary issues' for district, affected teachers

SOUTH KINGSTOWN – An investigation into former Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow's handling of teacher lay-off notices last April has found that she was "aware of" and "failed to adhere to" established processes. 

On April 19, Stringfellow issued a series of letters to teachers impacted by her recommended staffing plan for the upcoming school year. One letter was sent to nine teachers notifying them that they would be displaced from their assignment at the end of the year. A second was sent to another nine teachers, notifying them that due to budget cuts, they were being transferred to another position within their department. And finally, a third letter was sent out to 69 teachers, notifying them of her recommendation to the school committee that their contracts be terminated at the end of the year. 

All of this was done without prior notice being given to members of the school committee, the department's attorney, NEASK Union President Brian Nelson or the teachers receiving notice. 

On April 26, the school committee voted to place Stringfellow under administrative leave pending an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the notices to teaching staff. The vote came three days after the Norwich Board of Education selected Stringfellow to come on as their new superintendent of schools. 

The independent investigation, which was taken up by the Law Offices of Charles A. Ruggerio, looked into statutes, policies, and collective bargaining agreement, and interviewed several South Kingstown School Department employees, including Stringfellow. 

Ultimately, the investigation concluded that "Stringfellow was aware of the established process for handling personnel decisions and failed to adhere to them, creating unnecessary issues for both the school department and the affected teachers."

"This failure, in the least," the report continued, "amounted to negligence, perhaps because she was engaged in the process of transitioning to her new position outside the school department."

Ten days before the letters had gone out, the school committee had voted to make significant changes to its Personnel Assignment and Transfer (PAT) Policy. During her interview with investigators afterward, Stringfellow "stated that under her view of the new policy, she wouldn't necessarily know where the teachers were being reassigned to until each of the teachers selected a vacant position based upon their seniority."

Since teachers were doing the selecting, rather than the PAT committee, Stringfellow said it no longer made sense to meet with the union president. According to Assistant Executive Director Mary Barden of the National Education Association, however, the intent of the policy was "to give greater import to teacher seniority when determining teacher assignments following displacement, layoff or involuntary transfers."

"She further indicated that it was the intention of the parties to preserve the obligation to meet with the Union and the affected teachers prior to the determination to involuntary transfer, displace or lay-off an affected SKSD teacher," the report continued. 

Changes to the existing policy were coming at a time when the district was expecting to make significant cutbacks due to financial constraints caused by cuts to state aide, and dramatic layoffs and terminations were to be expected. 

School Committee Chair Stephanie Canter, who was also interviewed as part of the investigation, said the committee expected Stringfellow to "inform and discuss the cuts with the Union and provide the specific recommendations for the Committee's final approval before notifying the teachers and bringing the recommendation to the Committee for a vote."

Canter also told investigators that she thought it was odd that Stringfellow made no mention that she planned to send the letters out that day since the two had been in frequent contact throughout the day regarding the layoff process. 

Although both tenured and non-tenured teachers may be "dismissed" due to financial exigency or programmatic change, or "suspended" due to a drop in student enrollment, "the April 19, 2019 termination notices failed to provide to the affected teachers even a modicum of insight as to why it was being recommended to the Committee that their contract be ‘terminated' at the conclusion of the 2018-2019 school year," according to the official investigation. 

Except for one teacher who'd been notified of her non-renewal due to performance-related concerns, according to former Assistant Superintendent Pauline Lisi, all other teachers who received notice were potentially part of the budget reduction plan.

Even if everyone notified was given a notice because of the tight financial constraints, teachers had no way of knowing if they were non-renewed or laid off with recall rights, nor were they given any reason.

The investigation found that the "letters failed to provide teachers adequate notice so as to afford them a meaningful opportunity to advocate before the Committee for the restoration of their positions."

In all, Stringfellow identified 28.9 full-time employees to be eliminated due to budgetary constraints in the coming school year, but a total of 69 teachers received notice that it would be recommended to the school committee that their contracts be terminated. 

When Hicks sent out letters later that school year, after notifying the necessary parties and going through the correct channels, only 41 letters were sent out. At the conclusion of the cutbacks, 23 teachers were laid off and 16 teachers had their positions reduced in some way.

The report noted that "credible evidence exists to conclude that Stringfellow was directed to bring back the final list of cuts/consolidations to the committee for its final approval before notifying teachers," and that "Stringfellow's selection process and notices were improper."

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