Rhode Island · School Talk

The Fox is Guarding the Hen House

Sarah Markey

Saying that the fox is guarding the hen house is an understatement when someone who works for the National Education Association of Rhode Island is elected to sit on a local school committee and then appointed to vice president of that committee. But in South Kingstown, Rhode Island, with the recent election of Sarah Markey, that is precisely the situation and while there is nothing inherently wrong with working for NEA-RI for $166,000 per year, the mission of the organization’s mission is in direct conflict with the responsibilities of a school committee member. The union’s charge is to represent its members and those members are not students. On the contrary, the union paradigm is one that consistently ignores what’s best for students so that its members—the adults—can have more sick days, fewer duties, lower expectations for job performance, protections for teachers who are ineffective and even abusive, and better compensation. Student learning and overall well being are not part of the equation, despite occasional claims to the contrary.

Having been in two teachers’ unions myself and also served on the Cumberland school committee, I can say with certainty that the conflict of interest in South Kingstown is no small thing. While the school committee has a duty to be focused on student achievement, better communication with families, data informed practices and responsible stewardship of taxpayer dollars, teachers’ unions prioritize none of these things. Unions want to secure the biggest piece of the pie they can and that will always mean keeping schools open and employing as many members as possible, regardless of the declining number of students or the fiscal realities facing the town. Is it any surprise that Markey recently led the charge to keep Wakefield Elementary School open?

Town Council member, Bryant Da Cruz, a Democrat, is right to raise concerns and assert that voting to keep a school open has a direct correlation to employment numbers and to Markey’s day job. He goes on to say that “the bottom line is we need to know, and the town deserves to know — what [Markey] can vote on and what she cannot vote on.”

Markey is confident that she can, ethically, vote on school closures. As far as she is concerned—and shared with GoLocal Prov, she would only have to recuse herself from votes related to discipline, termination, and negotiations with NEARI bargaining members. Even if she’s right, who wants a SC member who consistently can’t ethically weigh in on serious personnel and contractual matters? It’s a conflict of interest and an abdication of responsibility to the community right out of the gate.

The legal opinions so far aren’t exactly on her side but she has decided to dismiss them. Last year when she was being considered for an appointment to the school committee, the attorneys for the town and school committee concluded that Markey would likely have to recuse herself from any and all discussions and votes that in any way relate to NEA RI or its members. That includes, umm, basically everything.

As the attorney for the the school Committee has pointed out, “the total annual budget is $60,573,360. Salary and benefits for all personnel comprise $48,561,322, or eighty percent (80%) of that annual budget. The salary and benefits paid to employees represented by NEARI is $40,520,958, or sixty-seven percent (67%) of the Committee’s total annual budget. Thus, more than two-thirds of the Committee’s budget supports employees represented by NEAR!. It is difficult under these circumstances to imagine a scenario in which NEARI would not have a direct financial interest in any matter before the Committee that implicates its budget and related fiscal concerns.”

Ya think?! This is bonkers.

The conflict here is glaring and the concern goes far beyond Markey’s potential votes: she will be charged with crafting school committee policy while at the same time, spending her days responsible, at least partially, for helping to craft union policy. Fox, meet henhouse.

I don’t live in South Kingstown and still, this story is maddening and could have dangerous and long lasting consequences statewide. Constituents should fight this unless they are comfortable with a school committee member who spends her days prioritizing the needs of union members—budgetary and otherwise—over the needs of students, voting by night to further the agenda of those for whom she works by day.

This is unethical. Let’s hope the state’s Ethics Commission agrees.


What do you think?

More Comments