NORTH KINGSTOWN – While the North Kingstown School District is going ahead with its long-established Candidates Day forum — an opportunity for students to ask questions of candidates running for town, state and federal office — some local Republican contenders might not be in attendance, citing concerns around a political group composed of high school students.  

The Candidates Day forum has traditionally been held in the North Kingstown High School auditorium each election cycle, though this year’s event will take place virtually next Thursday, due to COVID-19 guidelines. However, local Republican candidates said that they might decline participating in the forum because of concerns raised around an independent group of high school students who endorsed candidates for town council and school committee.

The student group, called “NKStudents4Candidates,” endorsed five candidates for town council and three for school committee, all Democrats, and made yard signs and a promotional video urging residents to cast their votes for them in the upcoming General Election. According to their website, NKStudents4Candidates is an “independent group of North Kingstown students who are engaged in local politics.”

“Our mission is to endorse candidates for local office (town council/school committee) who support the interests of students and youth in our town,” the group wrote. “The formation of this organization is based on the principle that youth and students have been disregarded and unheard in our local politics for too long.”

Recently, they also filed to become a political action committee (PAC) and purchased lawn signs for the endorsed candidates.

However, concerns were raised about the group and whether it was connected to the school department, as well as potential campaign finance issues or violations. According to the Republican Party of Rhode Island, these concerns are being investigated by its legal counsel and have been forwarded to the state police, though no further information was provided to the Standard Times regarding specific allegations of impropriety. NKStudents4Candidates has denied any wrongdoing.

Superintendent Philip Auger said that the student group was not a school department or district entity, nor did it have any part in organizing the Candidates Day forum. Rather, he said, NKStudents4Candidates was an independent group of students with no ties to the school department whatsoever. The school department also put out a message on its website, stating that neither the district or the high school are “involved or affiliated with any political endorsements from our students or employees.”

The only issue regarding the group from the school department’s point of view, Auger said, was the group’s use of the school’s Skipper mascot. And while he said he did not know if the Skipper mascot was actually copyrighted to the district, Auger said that, in order to avoid any confusion, the students were asked to remove the logo from campaign material.

“There’s a group of students [...] that have decided as a group to endorse some candidates and to make some signs that they would post around town,” he said. “We have spoken to them to make sure they’re not portraying themselves as a district entity. They’re not using the district logo or saying they represent the NK Student Union. They’re on their own as private citizens.”

“I think originally their intent was to use a sign that had a Skipper on it,” he continued. “I don’t know if any of our logos are copyrighted to the district, but what’s important to me is that it doesn’t come off to anybody as signifying that they represent the district in what they’re doing. They represent themselves as private citizens, they don’t represent the district.”

He went on to say that, as far as he can tell, the group was no longer using the Skipper mascot.

“As far as I can tell, they’re not,” he said. “To that end, I’m totally satisfied.”

Auger also said that the student group would have no part in conducting the Candidates Day forum, which would instead be overseen by Lawrence Verria, the head of the history department and Democracy Program. And regardless of whether some candidates choose not to attend, Auger said the forum would be going forward in virtual format.

“I have heard some people are, particularly on the GOP side, concerned about that,” he said. “We plan on going forward with the Candidates Day, it’s going to be a more virtual format because of COVID. It’s always been a great event, we’ve gotten praise throughout the years. Mr. Verria, he’s the head of our history department and runs the Democracy Program, he’s going to be overseeing this with students from Democracy classes.”

The questions are also produced by students in grades 9 through 12, and selected by Verria.

“We’re going to make sure it’s completely fair, that the questions are open ended for all candidates,” Auger continued. “There’s not going to be anything that’s slanted about this. There’s not going to be anybody we don’t allow to participate.”

Auger also said the school department wanted to encourage students to keep getting involved in government.

“If anything, we encourage our students to get involved in government and learn about it,” he said. “This is a big part of the learning process.”

The Candidates Day, which is taking place virtually next Thursday, will be pre-recorded in segments, featuring different candidates and questions in each one. The full recording will then be sent to students and posted on the high school’s website soon after.

Some Republican candidates also said they were considering not attending the Candidates Day forum because of legal concerns involving the NKStudents4Candidates group, including electoral or financial violations, though they did not provide specific information, citing the “active” and “ongoing” nature of the investigation process.

In response to a request for comment, current town councilor and North Kingstown Republican Mary Brimer, who is seeking reelection, said that while she and others weren’t necessarily “boycotting” the event, they were considering declining participation. But Brimer said she couldn’t comment further because there was an active and ongoing investigation by the Rhode Island State Police (RISP) and Board of Elections regarding potential electoral and financial violations involving minors.

“Because this investigation involves minors that may be charged with electoral and financial crimes, I am unable to comment further at this time,” Brimer said. “Myself and others may decline participation depending on the results of the investigation by the BOE and RISP.”

RISP said that they did not have any information regarding an investigation into the NKStudents4Candidates group. Richard Thornton, the campaign finance director for the Board of Elections, said he could not provide any information into a potential campaign finance investigation “unless or until the Board votes there is reason to believe a violation occurred and the matter becomes public record.”

Republican town council candidate Randy Wietman also said that he was considering not attending the Candidates Day forum “for good cause,” but did not offer any further comment. Current town councilor Kerry McKay, a Republican running for reelection, did not return a request for comment.

Sue Cienki, chair of the Republican Party of Rhode Island, confirmed that she had been alerted of a potential campaign finance violation committed by the student group. The information was forwarded to the RIGOP’s general legal counsel to determine whether a violation had occurred, she said, though added that she couldn’t offer any further information. She also said the information was passed along to RISP for review.

“Any time you’re involved in any type of campaign, you check where the money’s coming from and if it’s been properly reported and make sure that it follows campaign finance laws,” Cienki said. “So that’s the general gist of what’s going on — if there is a proper use of campaign expenditure funds and make sure all of the I’s are dotted and the T’s are crossed.”

“We have sent all the information up to our general counsel to investigate and give to the authorities,” she continued. “So until that is done, I can’t give you too much information because it’s an active, ongoing process.”

The NKStudents4Candidates group posted a message on Facebook denying any legal wrongdoing.

“On the basis of the legality of our organization: NKStudents4Candidates has filed to become a PAC (Political Action Committee),” the group stated. “We are operating our organization within the bounds of the law.”

The group said that the matter has resulted in hardships for their organization.

“This past week has been full of hardships for our organization. We have endured adversity from groups we had expected to be civil,” the group continued. “To this day, we are facing pressure to cease the entirety of our activities. These attacks on our very existence as a student advocacy group are a great reminder that students are still fighting for the right to organize politically.”

The group also said that it has no connection to the North Kingstown School Department, Class Council or Student Union, adding that it was “dire that this truth is known by all.”

Reached over email, Joe Vento, a co-founder of NKStudents4Candidates and senior at the high school, said that, because the group voted to endorse all Democrats, the Republican candidates were growing “anxious.”

“They have contacted the school department questioning them about the existence of our organization and about stuff as insignificant as our logo, which was the skipper mascot until the NKSD requested we changed it,” Vento said. “However, there is some question about who owns the rights to the logo, but we decided to change it just so we could avoid potential confrontation.”

He said that, when Republicans “caught wind” of their student group, they “feared that some of the questions and moderators would be biased, even though the questions are produced by students in grades 9 through 12 and selected by the Social Students Department chair, not the students.”

Nevertheless, some Republican candidates, Vento said, have stated that they may not participate in Candidates Day.

“We are unsure whether they will proceed to follow through with the boycott, but it still is an avoidable controversy,” he said. “We believe they are having trouble drawing a line between the NKHS Student Union and NKStudents4Candidates, which are entirely independent. The circulation of misconceptions and false information has even scared some of our endorsed candidates, who wrote us emails stating that our organization wasn’t operating under the bounds of the law, which we are.”

Adding to the situation, Vento said that several of their recently purchased political yard signs, with the names of the endorsed candidates, were also stolen.

“Finally, we recently filed to become a PAC and purchased lawn signs,” he said. “A couple of days ago, we discovered at least seven of our lawn signs had been stolen around town. We filed a police report and haven’t heard back.”  

Several of the Democratic candidates endorsed by NKStudents4Candidates have come out to express support for the group, including town council candidates Brad Artery, Katherine Anderson and current council president Greg Mancini.

Mancini also said that the North Kingstown Republicans may or may not participate in the Candidates Day forum based on an unclear complaint, adding that the election represented a “clear choice” between local Democrats and Republicans. He also alleged that Republican candidates were resorting to “bullying tactics.”

“Democrats are openly engaging students and encouraging them to participate in our democracy,” he said. “Republicans are using bullying tactics that are discouraging participation in democracy. I think that’s disgraceful.”

The school department notified candidates on Tuesday that Oct. 14 would be the deadline to confirm whether they would be participating in the Candidates Day.

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