WESTERLY — A letter from the head of the state Department of Education suggests that parts of the campaign in support of the failed school building project were inappropriate and in violation of a state law prohibiting.
"While your superintendent and other school officials have a First Amendment right to express their opinion as to the ... school bond referendum, they may not use state funds that have been appropriated for educational purposes in order to do so, and as such were used to support the activities described above, such use would be in violation of Rhode Island General Laws 16-7-23(b) and would not be 'appropriate,'" Angelica Infante-Green, commissioner of the state Department of Education, wrote in a letter to Town Council President Christopher Duhamel. She said the letter was intended to serve as a guidance document.
The letter was dated Oct. 15, five days after the referendum on the school building project. The commissioner was responding to a letter from Duhamel in which he requested an advisory opinion on whether the expenditure of public funds for four general activities was appropriate.
Local school officials on Thursday continued to dispute some of the charges made in Duhamel's letter and questioned whether what Infante-Green was asked to consider was an accurate description of what had occurred. For instance, Infante-Green was asked whether it was proper to use public funds to disseminate to parents correspondence or letters by Garceau and State Street School Principal Audrey Faubert. While Garceau publicly supported the project at meetings and in interviews and letters to the editor, he said he was careful not to advocate in favor of the project in his letter to parents.
"I take exception to some of the descriptions in President Duhamel's letter ... I was very cognizant of the fact that when I directly wrote to parents that it should be informational only," Garceau said.
Similarly, Garceau said, and contrary to Duhamel's characterization, a robo-call made by Garceau to parents did not urge support of the project but instead informed them of the project, how to get information about it, and the date of the vote. "I was trying to disseminate information because I was surprised by the number of people, when we returned from summer vacation, that seemed to know nothing about the project," he said.
School officials have acknowledged using $300 in school funds to purchase banners advocating the project. The banners were another of the items Duhamel asked Infante-Green about. The banners were designed by the building project architect and purchased by the School Building Committee. Duhamel also asked for an opinion on a Facebook page in which school employees posted videos speaking in favor of the project. It is not clear whether the videos were posted on school time or before or after the school day.
In the future, Garceau said, he anticipated making a similar effort to ensure residents "know about the project and are getting accurate information." While state law allows for an appeal of guidance documents, Garceau said he does not plan to appeal.
Councilor William Aiello, who was the most vocal supporter of the effort to seek an advisory opinion from the state education department, said he hoped the Town Council would write a letter to the School Committee and include a copy of Infante-Green's letter.
The building project called for construction of a new State Street School and renovations, maintenance, and upgrades to all of the district's other schools. Town and school officials generally agree that the needs remain. Aiello said he believes the Town Council "wants to be able to work together with the School Committee to try to get a consensus with everybody on board at the beginning."
Christine Cooke, a member of the School Committee and co-chairwoman of its Building Subcommittee, noted that the Town Council did not look into other irregularities during the campaign leading up to the Oct. 10 referendum.
"During the weeks leading up to the special election, it came to my attention that members of the opposition team, including a member of the Town Council, had been placing flyers on residents' mailboxes, which is prohibited by federal law. Members of the public contacted me, upset that the flyers had blown off their mailboxes and littered their neighborhood. I and other School Committee members were also contacted about reject signs that had been illegally placed on public property. Unfortunately, neither of these issues were addressed by the Town Council," Cooke said.
The Town Council, Cooke noted, has had Infante-Green's letter for a few weeks. "The Town Council took no action, so I can only assume that the pursuit of this opinion from the state Department of Education was politically motivated," she said.
State law requires people who make expenditures exceeding $1,000 in a calendar year for ballot-question advocacy on a particular ballot question to file reports with the state Board of Elections. School Committee member Mary Adams and Garceau were the only Westerly officials and residents to file before the referendum. Adams helped support the project by assisting with the development of signs and T-shirts.
Opponents of the project had their own signs and developed a Facebook page. It is unclear how much money the opponents spent.