WESTERLY — After about two weeks of consideration, the Town Council agreed Monday to ask the Rhode Island Department of Education to issue an advisory opinion on whether banners, letters, fliers and an automated phone call to parents, all related to the proposed school building project, represent an improper use of public funds or resources to advocate in favor of the project.
A letter drafted by Town Attorney William J. Conley Jr. asks Angelica M. Infante-Green, state commissioner of education, for an advisory opinion on whether six specific items were “appropriate.” Voters will be asked to approve up to $71.4 million in borrowing for the project during an Oct. 10 referendum. At least 35% and up to 50% percent of the cost of most of the project and interest is in line to be reimbursed by the state.
The letter is partially based on conclusions that school officials have disputed — that all of the items in question were intended to advocate in favor of a positive vote. School officials have acknowledged that one item, banners that encourage a vote in favor of the project that were paid for with about $300 in school funds, were advocacy. However, school officials have maintained that the other items — letters from Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau and State Street Elementary School Principal Audrey Faubert, fliers and the robocall from Garceau — were informational but did not advocate a specific position or vote.
“It has come to the attention of the Westerly Town Council that certain administrators, employees and representatives of Westerly Public Schools have been using public funds and resources to promote the school bond question. Specifically, the Town Council is seeking an advisory opinion as to whether the following expenditures of public funds and use of public school resources by said administrators, employees and representatives of the Westerly Public Schools is appropriate,” a portion of the letter, which was to be signed by Town Council President Christopher Duhamel, reads.
The letter also asks Infante-Green to determine whether the use of school resources and materials and the preparation or conducting of the activities on public school grounds during work hours was appropriate.
Duhamel’s letter also asks for a determination on a “Westerly public schools” Facebook page that, according to the letter, posts videos of schools employees and other individuals advocating for passage of the bond.
On Monday, Councilor William Aiello, by far the most vocal member of the Town Council raising the concerns cited in the letter, asked Conley to also ask Infante-Green to determine whether an announcement during a Westerly High School sports game advocating a yes vote on the bond was appropriate. Aiello also asked Conley to seek an opinion on Westerly High School teachers distributing lawn signs in favor of the project to students, an alleged action Aiello called “ridiculous” and “even more in your face.”
Duhamel said he would not support adding anything to the letter unless the council and the public had an opportunity to review the language of the proposed additions. Conley suggested moving forward with the draft.
“I’m just concerned with the timing,” Conley said.
Ultimately, the council approved the original version of the letter by a 7-0 vote.