Over 250 APRA requests brings committee to consider mediation
SOUTH KINGSTOWN — The South Kingstown School Committee hopes to reach mediation with a parent, rather than pushing forward with recent considerations of a lawsuit.
News of the potential lawsuit made national headlines the morning of Wednesday’s school committee meeting, which would have sought an injunction against a parent who’s filed hundreds of public records requests in recent months.
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, though many focused themselves around the ways in which equity, race and gender were being discussed in the classroom.
Over the span of a few months, the sheer volume of requests Solas has submitted to the district has been “like a tsunami,” according to Superintendent Linda Savastano, which has been putting the district in crisis.
“This conversation isn’t about stopping that access to public information,” the superintendent explained, 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.
The district wants to be open and transparent, according to Savastano, but the time and resources the requests have been pulling away from day-to-day operations has been a huge burden on the district during an already challenging year.
So far, only 40 APRA requests have been completed — one of which Savastano claims took 40 hours to compile. Not meeting APRA deadlines could open the school district up to an investigation from the attorney general’s office and heavy litigation fines, which School Committee Chair Emily Cummiskey fears could be to the tune of millions of dollars.
“When work piles on top — unexpected work — then you start to find yourself in a situation where you’re not meeting goals, not meeting deadlines or not being able to do the jobs our children need us to do everyday,” she said.
As the parent of a soon-to-be kindergarten student, however, Solas said she has questions about what her daughter will be learning inside the classroom next year.
“I had questions about her education, and you didn’t answer them,” Solas said at Wednesday night’s special school committee meeting. “You told me to submit public record requests to answer my questions.”
“I did what you told me,” she continued, “and now you’re holding a public meeting to discuss suing me for doing what you told me to do. This meeting was meant to publicly humiliate me, and it didn’t work.”
Solas expressed criticism of a public statement released by Cummiskey earlier that day, and the “critical race theory verbiage such as ‘equity,” found throughout.
“Equity is critical race theory code word for discrimination based on race,” Solas said. “The school committee should focus on equality, treating students without regard to race.”
She expressed the need for clarification and answers as to why “the school committee is so obsessed with treating students based on their skin color,” instead of waging lawsuits against parents.
Both before and after public comment on this issue, multiple school committee members expressed a desire to reach some kind of solution to this matter through mediation, rather than litigation.
“I do believe this is more about politics and national discussions about culture and racial justice, but at the same time, I feel like a lawsuit isn’t the answer,” said school committee member Sarah Markey, also expressing concern that this could potentially chill “real parent concern and engagement.”
In a similar vein of discussion, school committee member Kate Macinanti wondered why litigation was put on the table before mediation, and Christie Fish also expressed hopes of somehow finding a win-win in the situation.
Community comment on this topic lasted for roughly two hours, and displayed a wide gulf of public opinion around the best ways in which to educate children.
South Kingstown High School Graduate Eve Mombelly expressed strong support for having anti-racism education in the classroom.
“If you are against anti-racism, you’re racist,” Mombelly said, turning toward Solas as she spoke.
“I have lived through this, you have not, so I don’t want to hear it,” she added in that same direction, before being asked to address her comments to the school committee and not towards any audience members. “What these people are doing is to the detriment of their children. Just because they’re racist doesn’t mean their children are racist. Their children have the right to learn about their peers, and about their cultures, and learn about how they live their lives — and we have the right to have our own curriculum presented to us.”
Community member Katie Garvin stressed the need for transparency, and sympathized with parents who undoubtedly have lots of questions before sending their little ones off to school, but she also had concerns adding that “the magnitude of these requests has put [the]district at risk — at the end of an already unprecedented and complex year.”
Garvin was one of many parents who voiced support for delivering a socially conscience education to students, and applauded to the committee for its support of equity and anti-racist teachings, but not everyone viewed this issue through the same lens.
The room appeared to be firmly split down the middle, made readily apparent by both the cheers and booing that echoed through the school cafeteria that evening.
Community member David Smith expressed his beliefs and concerns that critical race theory only pushes society further away from a just and fair society for all.
“To me, it seems like ever since this stuff came out, it’s like, ‘We’ve got to teach white kids that they’re bad because their ancestors did this and that,’” Smith said. “To me, it seems like it’s producing racism.”
“It seems like all this became an issue once all this stuff started,” he added.
He also took a few moments to express his displeasure with Cummiskey’s statement on the matter, and her insinuations that everyone against critical race theory education is racist.
“I think we should be teaching our kids to work hard, reap what you sow, [and] be kind to others no matter what,” Smith said. “Why are we even mentioning skin color? I don’t really get it.”
Melanie Dyer, who knows Solas personally, said she doesn’t believe she had any idea how much work and stress this would put on the district.
“I know she was a young mom who was concerned and wanted to know what her daughter was going to be experiencing, like anyone else,” Dyer said. “She was doing, as far as I know, what you told her to do. I’m sure that she didn’t know the amount of hours and the stipulations that’s required, and the mess that this has created for you,” she said. “I’m sure that something logical and something sensible can come from this if we work together.”
Community member Joshua Craven expressed strong opposition against the schools teaching anti-racism to students.
“I’m Hispanic, and I don’t need people telling me I need to feel a certain way for being Hispanic,” Craven said. “I don’t teach my children that, and I don’t need you to teach my children that either. You guys are only there to teach my children how to think, not what to think. That’s not your job.”
Craven added he wants children to form their own opinions and beliefs
“I bet you, anyone on that panel can’t describe what anti-racism is,” Craven said, pointing towards members of the school committee. “I know you can’t, and don’t try to teach my children what you think it is either.”
The debate drew out people outside of South Kingstown, too.
A mother from Warwick came to the meeting to express her displeasure, and another women from Massachusetts said she drove more than an hour to participate in the discussion.
“I’m worried about your choice to move forward with litigation and [that this] will set a precedent for other communities, including my own,” the Massachusetts resident said. “We’re very close by, and this made national news today.”
“I’m here to advocate for parents everywhere,” she added. “We need the ability to request information. I’m worried that your decision to move forward is going to set the precedent for parents around the county that asking for information could cause them legal strife, financial strife and that we’re not going to be able to have clear transparency in the schools we pay for.”
Closer to home, community member Fil Eden expressed a hope that people be respectful with one another while discussing these uncomfortable topics.
“I get that this it’s hard, I get that it’s uncomfortable, I get that there’s a lot of emotions this brings up but we’re a small town,” Eden said. “I see you at Stop & Shop. This is not Rachel Maddow, this is not Fox and Friends, and we need to be talking with respect to each other, and not name calling.”
“We need to be talking with respect and trying to make progress for the students and the kids in this community,” he added.
He does feel that Solas’ actions are a tactic, however.
“This is a tactic that activists use on the left and the right,” he said. “Let’s call it what it is — it’s not about asking innocent questions, it’s a tactic. But let’s see if we can figure it out neighbor-to-neighbor.”