Elected officials turn to search firms for new town manager, superintendent of schools 

SOUTH KINGSTOWN – In the search for new leadership, both the town council and the school committee will be turning to professionals for assistance. 

For the past two months, following the exit of former Town Manager Rob Zarnetske, Director of Leisure Services Terry Murphy has stepped up as his temporary replacement. In order to find a permanent replacement, however, the council will be engaging a professional consulting service. 

Although the council does not yet know what this hiring process will look like, on Monday, all five elected officials voted in favor of putting out a request for proposals. 

This process will need to happen, ideally, within the next few months. 

According to Town Solicitor Michael Ursillo, the town charter only empowered the council to appoint an acting town manager for a period of six months – meaning a new, permanent town manager should be in place by December. 

If the council doesn’t find a new town manager to take over in the next four months, however, they do have the option to sign a contract with the interim town manager lasting only one or two months.

“You just can’t use the term interim anymore,” Ursillo clarified, “so it would become a short-term contract for the town manager.”

The council can draw on the exact same request for proposals they put out about three and a half years ago, according to Ursillo. 

“We had spent a good amount of time, when we were replacing Steve Alfred, putting together this RFP,” Ursillo said. “I have a lot of confidence in what’s in it, and that we’ve covered, thoroughly, all of the necessary pieces, so to speak.” 

“For what it’s worth, Steve obviously had a lot of input into this,” he added. “This product that’s before you this evening has been vetted very well.” 

Town Council President Rory McEntee acknowledged that “the process seems “pretty vague at this point,” but has confidence that “we’ll figure it out more in detail as we go along.” 

The following evening, the school committee was also in unanimous favor of soliciting a national search firm in order to find the district’s next superintendent. 

Former Superintendent Linda Savastano came to a separation agreement with the school committee in late June, less than two years after she was appointed, following the blowback of a political mailer incident. In April, a few weeks ahead of the school bond referendum, political mailers in support of the project were addressed to many students in the district – some of whom were in kindergarten. 

Several weeks later, Savastano came out with a statement apologizing for releasing student directory information to a community member campaigning in support of the project. She stressed that at the time she “had no idea that any person would be sending a mailer addressed to school children.”

“In my mind, I had not connected the dots from the request to mailers that were sent to the community, but in retrospect, I should have made those connections,” Savastano wrote in her statement to the community in June. “This was a mistake. I do wish that I had informed the school committee sooner about providing the directory information to the Friends of South Kingstown Schools, and for that, I apologize.” 

While Attorney Andrew Henneous provided school committee members with a number of options as to how to move forward — some as simple as advertising the job listing on a nationwide search engine for educators — the school committee was ultimately in favor of enlisting professional help from a search firm that specializes in finding educational administrators. 

“I think what the body really needs to decide is what kind of process you want to follow,” Henneous said, making the recommendation that if the committee wishes to enlist a national search firm, that they put out a request for proposals “and see what comes back.” 

The responses the committee receives, he said, should be able to tell them what each of the firms does, “and how they do it.” 

School committee member Melissa Boyd expressed a desire for a robust process, echoing comments from her fellow committee members that the next superintendent will play a critical role in moving the district forward. Boyd also voiced support for providing the entire community — including students, parents and teachers — with the opportunity to weigh in on the process. 

“I would definitely be supportive of the idea of a search firm to cast as wide a net as possible, and to ensure that we’re able to craft our narrative for the type of leader that we’d like to have,” Boyd said. “The steps in the process are to ensure that we have community engagement, and to ensure we’re making a fully informed choice.” 

In order to help ensure this community element remains in the search process, Henneous suggests the committee include this in their request for proposals. 

School committee member Kate Macinanti also voiced support for potentially moving forward with a national search firm, so the committee has a chance to “look outside of what we know and what we’ve done, because we would like to see some different results than we’ve seen in the past.”

“To broaden our horizons and see what else is out there, I think that would be the best way to go,” she said. 

This view was echoed by newly appointed school committee members Carol Vetter and Mike Marran, who motioned for the legal counsel to draft the request for proposal ahead of the committee’s next meeting. 

As the committee moves forward with its search process — which, similar to the council, is very much undefined — Macinanti stressed the importance of taking their time. School Committee Chair Paula Whitford echoed these sentiments, acknowledging the importance of the task in front of the committee. 

“We need to get this right this time,” Whitford said. “It’s very important that we start to move our district forward, but first things first, is finding that superintendent who’ll help us move forward.”

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