[updated with details of legal complaints]
WOOD RIVER JCT. — Members of the Chariho School Committee voted unanimously Tuesday to approve a settlement that will resolve a legal complaint against several members of the committee.
Filed by plaintiffs Dorothy Gardiner, Georgia Ure, Sylvia Thompson, Paul Michaud, Keven Miller, Sandra Johanson, Thomas Buck and Melania Vanderhooft, the complaint includes three lawsuits alleging violations of the Rhode Island Open Meetings Act.
The defendants were current and former committee members Craig Louzon, Ryan Callahan, Donna Chambers, Lisa Macaruso, Catherine Giusti, Ronald Areglado, William Day, Stephen Huzyk, Sylvia Stanley, Amanda Blau, and Robert Cardozo.
The Open Meetings Act defines a meeting as a convening of a public body to discuss or decide public business. Notices of meetings must be posted 48 hours in advance, and items not on the meeting agenda may not be discussed. The court may nullify any action taken during the meeting found to have been in violation of the act and assess fines of up to $5,000 per violation.
The complaint was filed in Washington County Superior Court.
"The complainants are reputable members of our local community who have been pained to watch the School Committee's functioning degrade," the complaint reads. "This downward spiral has occurred despite efforts by the complainants that are also current School Committee members to redirect the public body to operate in a manner that is compliant with state laws such as OMA, as well as in compliance with the School Committee's own rules and ethical guidelines."
The complaint alleged that "numerous," "willful" violations of the law took place between Sept. 17, 2014, and Feb. 10, 2015. One alleged violation involved a discussion of the expansion of the Kingston Hill Academy charter school, which was not on the School Committee agenda, and, the complainants charged, a vote on a resolution without the required prior notification.
Another violation was alleged to have occurred on Oct. 22, 2014, when members met in executive session to vote on the teachers' contract. Ure questioned whether that meeting had the six members required to constitute a quorum, since — with one member having to recuse himself — only five members were eligible to vote on the issue.
The plaintiffs, represented by Paige Munro-Delotto, and the committee, represented by Jon Anderson, recently agreed to settle the three actions in the complaint against the school district with several conditions.
The first condition is that “public business be performed in a public and open manner and that the citizens be advised of and be aware of the performance of public officials and the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy.”
The parties also agreed to maintain ongoing efforts to educate the public regarding the Open Meetings Act, and to that end, the school district will invite a representative from the Rhode Island Attorney General’s office to make presentations on the act to the committee in the first three months of 2020, 2022 and 2024.
Unless they are unable to attend for medical reasons, all members of the committee will be required to attend the presentations, and the committee will also send written notices to the plaintiffs advising them of the dates of the presentations.
Anderson told the committee that the district, which has vigorously denied any wrongdoing throughout the proceedings, would not have to pay the $25,000 in legal fees originally demanded by the plaintiffs.
“We were asked to pay a very large payment of legal fees and we said ‘absolutely not. The Chariho Regional School Committee has done nothing wrong.’ So there is not exchange of money. There is a release whereby the plaintiffs are releasing all of their claims relating to Open Meetings Act cases,” he said.
Anderson also briefed the committee on changes resulting from legislation passed last spring by the Rhode Island General Assembly to improve the performance of Rhode Island schools. The changes will take effect in January.
The changes remove much of the power now held by school committees and superintendents and divide it between state bodies and school principals. The Rhode Island Board of Education, Anderson explained, will take over the review and approval of curriculum, a process that currently takes place in the district.
“They are also making sure that on a school-by-school basis, all schools are making progress,” he said. “The big news for school committees is that you are no longer part of the hiring process … All appointments now are done at the building level with the superintendent's approval.”
School principals will be charged with tasks such as employee evaluations and the care of school buildings, all of which are now made by the Chariho central office and the School Committee.
“You’re going to have to adopt a lot of policies to make it clear to building principals how the hiring process works, what their budgets are and their responsibilities for living within their budgets,” Anderson said.
School improvement teams, half of whose members will be teachers, will also be vested with considerably more power.
“The school improvement team is going to have a lot of say-so in terms of how buildings actually operate,” Anderson said.
Work on Chariho budget planning will begin in early January, and with many of the details still unclear, committee members wondered how the new structure would affect that process.
“If the idea administratively is to decentralize, we might in our budget workshops look how we’re allocating funds, too,” Hopkinton member Lisa Macaruso said. “We can’t allocate funds to a central admin system that has power … We might have to look at that money and breaking it down and parsing it out to buildings and principals during budget workshops."
Anderson said it would be important for principals to participate fully in budget planning.
Field House progress
The committee approved the construction of the Maddie Potts Memorial Field House, a project which will honor student athlete Maddie Potts, who died in 2017 during a Chariho soccer game.
Stephanie Potts presented drawings of the proposed 3,000-square foot structure, which is being designed by Wakefield architect Frank Karpowicz.
Voters in the three Chariho towns approved a proposal for the field house in March 2019, and the Maddie Potts Foundation, the Chariho Booster Club and other community and business leaders have been raising funds for the project, which is expected to cost about $500,000 to build.
In addition to replacing portable toilets with indoor facilities, the field house will offer a concession stand, locker rooms, a training room and a large atrium.
The field house will be located near the road that runs past the football field to the baseball field.
The foundation is launching a “matching for Maddie” campaign with a goal of $50,000, which will match a $50,000 contribution pledged by an anonymous donor.
“We’ve been asked by the grantee to run this as a challenge grant, which involves raising matching $50,000 through brick paver sales as well as foundation sponsorship,” Potts told the committee.
The School Committee approved the proposal, and construction is expected to begin on April 11, 2020, which would have been the date of Maddie’s 20th birthday.