Under legislation taking effect the first of this year, school superintendents and principals have gained the power to fill job positions and dismiss personnel directly under their command without school committee approval.
“It’s the best thing to get school committees out of the hiring business. Those decisions should be made closer to the school level,” said Timothy Duffy, executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees.
“School committees should not get involved in the weeds,” he added. He explained in an interview Friday that a package of legislation approved by lawmakers last year is patterned after school governance in Massachusetts and is designed to give Rhode Island schools greater “site-based management.”
Another aspect of the change calls for “site-based management teams” or “school improvement teams” to serve as advisory boards to principals. Also, principals will have greater authority over how they spend their school budget.
“I think it’s going to take a while to sort out,” Duffy said of all the changes.
The hiring provision has already been put to use in Warwick schools. According to the office of Superintendent Philip Thornton, the department has filled a vacant clerk’s position and made a part-time physical education teacher full time. Those changes would have had to otherwise wait until the School Committee meeting later this month.
Thornton sees the legislation as streamlining hiring, although he doesn’t imagine it really changing a lot. Before filling a position, Thornton said he would still be conferring with human resources and the principal and “nothing would change.”
Duffy points out the process must still follow the provisions of collective bargaining contracts for certified and non-certified personnel. If the contract provides for an employee with seniority to have first dibs on an opening, then they can get the post over the selection made by the principal.
But the removal of the School Committee from the process still troubles committee member Nathan Cornell, who was the only person to speak against the legislation when it came before the House Health Education and Welfare Committee last year.
Duffy said the association held a number of informational sessions leading up to legislative consideration of the changes, which Cornell didn’t attend.
While Cornell joined other committee members to unanimously approve a change in the hiring policy to conform with the legislation at the Dec. 19 meeting, he read a statement that is basically repeated in a letter appearing in today’s Beacon outlining his fears that the measure strips away a safeguard against nepotism in the hiring of personnel.
In arguing for the committee to retain control at the December meeting, Cornell said, “I don’t feel a non-resident should have the final say on an appointment.”
Thornton, who is a Cranston resident, picked up on the comment immediately.
“It’s really irrelevant where the superintendent lives. The remedy is if you don’t like the decision, then get rid of me,” he said.
Committee member David Testa agreed. He said the committee should defer to the superintendent’s choice. “Our control of this is through the superintendent.”
Committee chair Karen Bachus pointed out that the committee holds the purse strings but not the power to hire. What it has lost is the advice and consent process.
“Unfortunately, the state moved as fast as it did,” she said.
“As representatives of the community and therefore the community’s voice, I believe that the School Committee should have a say in who enters our community schools,” Cornell writes in today’s Beacon.
“While principals and school improvement teams are now more involved in the hiring process, which I completely support, according to the new state statute, the superintendent has the final say on appointments. Candidly, I am not comfortable with a superintendent having both appointing and consenting authority.”