School Committee Asks State for ‘Ultimate Control’ Over School Building Project

by | Jan 30, 2024

Town Council slams query; puts brakes on state construction application

Supt. Brian Ricca last week asked the state Department of Education (RIDE) to declare that the School Committee and not the Town Council “has ultimate control over the scope and direction” of the $150 million school construction project approved by voters in November.

The “Request for Declaratory Order” letter was sent to RIDE on Jan. 23 with no prior notification to the Town Council (find the letter here: Declaratory Order Request 1/23/24).

The Town Council, which learned of the request Thursday, expressed their disappointment and anger during their meeting Monday night. (Find a recording of the meeting HERE – the relevant section comes 2 hours, 31 minutes in.)

“This is an unforced error,” said Councilor Caryn Corenthal. “This council has supported the bond. I said we would be fiscally responsible. We consistently reaffirmed our control.”

“This was something that could have been avoided,” said Councilor Renu Englehart. “The fact that this wasn’t even noticed to us … I find completely irresponsible. We campaigned on this … that the town would control the bond. However, I remain hopeful that some resolution will be made.”

One question that came up last night was timing. Specifically, why did the School Committee decide to seek the ruling now, just two weeks before the deadline to submit a “stage 2” application to RIDE? That application lays out how the bond money will be spent and seeks confirmation from RIDE that the town will get the up to 55 percent reimbursement officials are hoping for.  It requires “yes” votes from both the School Committee and the Town Council. 

The council voted 4-1 Monday night to deny the stage 2 application “without prejudice,” meaning they can take it up again. If the town misses the Feb. 15 deadline, they will have to wait until Sept. 15 to submit the stage 2 and they would have missed the deadline for the extra 20 percent in reimbursements (resulting in the loss of millions of dollars).

“Nary a chirp about it,” said Councilman Mike Donegan about the lack of communication about this leading up to the letter to RIDE. “We had endless conversations … that we would run the money and we came up with this language. Only now, at the 11th hour as we are about to vote, is it challenged.”

Town Solicitor Peter Skwirz, Town Manager Andy Nota and Donegan all questioned whether or not RIDE even had any power to weigh in on this issue, since it was the General Assembly that gave the Town Council the authority to put a bond referendum on the ballot. The Town Council is the only town entity that can issue bonds.

In Ricca’s letter, he quotes from the legislation allowing the Town of East Greenwich to bond up to $180 million for school construction (the Town Council opted for $150 million bond referendum), which says, “the projects shall be carried out and all contracts made therefore on behalf of the town by the town council, or the town council may delegate such authority to the school building committee, the school construction committee, or to the town school committee.”

The letter states the Town Council is relying on that language to “exert improper control” over the school building project, citing the council’s decision to establish a new school building construction committee. 

Ricca is referring to an ordinance put before the Town Council on Monday, Jan. 22, that would establish that committee. The council heard the first reading of the ordinance at that meeting. All ordinances get three readings, with the second reading being a public hearing. Here’s a copy of the draft ordinance presented Jan. 22: School Construction Committee draft ordinance 1-19-24.

In the letter to RIDE, Ricca wrote, “Through the Town Council’s proposed charge, the School Committee is rendered an afterthought – to be kept informed of progress, but given no authority to provide for and resolve what it determines to be the educational needs of the School Department.”

By state law, school committees are responsible for “the entire care, control, and management of all public school interests.”

On Tuesday, School Committee Chair Alyson Powell said Ricca acted under his own authority “on advice of counsel,” adding, “It’s not a decision that I or the School Committee made.”

Committee member Kevin Murphy, who co-chairs the current School Building Committee with Powell, said this via email: “I have no comments at this time, except that I truly believe this matter will be resolved in a proper and timely manner.”

School Committee members Tim Munoz and Clare Cecil-Karb declined to comment; member Nicole Bucka said media requests should go to Supt. Ricca first (editors note: we mischaracterized Nicole’s respond in the original post; we regret the error). Member Will Hangan did not respond to a request for comment in time for this posting.

Monday night via email, committee member Gene Quinn said, “Everyone wants this important building project to get done and hopefully we can resolve the differences that were apparent tonight.”

Quinn said he learned of Ricca’s letter on Friday, Jan. 26. (Editor’s note: The date was amended 1/31/34.)

Ricca, via email Monday, said he had communicated with the School Committee prior to submitting the request to RIDE. Nota said on Monday that Ricca said the School Committee had not taken a vote on the action. 

“Pursuant to RI state law, as superintendent, I was acting in my role as Chief Administrative Agent to the School Committee and the duties that follow that responsibility. They were aware this was being submitted.”

It’s unclear when members of the School Committee were made aware. 

Ricca said Tuesday he recognized the town’s “important financial role/control. He said, “We are fully committed to seeing this historic project through, working in partnership with the Town Council to ensure key educational components are included as it relates to our students’ specific learning needs. The clarity we are seeking through RIDE is relative to understanding our school leaders’ role per the law, as the Town Council’s ordinance recently sought to remove school officials from this project.”

According to Town Council President Mark Schwager, the first reading of the ordinance to which Ricca refers was an introduction. 

We asked the manager and solicitor to put together a preliminary draft,” he said by phone Tuesday. The second reading, which includes a public hearing, will be held Monday, Feb. 12, Schwager said there is no time limit to the public hearing – the Town Council could continue it to another evening or evenings.

For Schwager, the only member of the council to vote against denying the stage 2 application, the RIDE request and the stage 2 submission are two separate things. “I support the project recommendations,” he said, referring to the stage 2 application. “I didn’t want people to interpret this as a problem with the project. It’s a question of governance,” he said. 

RIDE has 60 days to respond to Ricca’s letter. Town Solicitor Skwirz said Tuesday the issue could be “resolved quicker [perhaps through] some type of mediation or resolution by agreement. But that remains to be seen.” 

Ricca said he hoped the issue would not interfere with the town’s Feb. 15 stage 2 submission. 

“Our legal counsel connected at length with the Town Council’s representation last night,” he said, “and we will continue to reach out to ensure we can come to the table together to successfully submit this application and support the best interests of our students and community.”

Find all the school construction stories HERE.

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Nicole Bucka
Nicole Bucka
January 31, 2024 5:13 am

Only in EG does the real story (The Town Council voted no on the bond stage II) turn into a headline about the School Committee. Deflect much?
They voted no.
They are adults elected to put ego aside to do what’s best for this community and they voted no.
After the voters said yes, after (with town and municipal rep) the Building Committee voted a unanimous yes, they voted no. Nobody owns that decision but the four councilors themselves.
Today, even with not knowing what body plays what role, I will vote yes. I will vote yes because it’s good for kids. I will vote yes because our community uses these facilities as hubs of connection. I will vote yes because it is fiscally prudent for taxpayers. That is leadership.

Bob D
Bob D
January 31, 2024 8:31 am
Reply to  Nicole Bucka

You have to be kidding?

Ray Riccio
Ray Riccio
January 31, 2024 10:09 am
Reply to  Nicole Bucka

Simple question as I am confused. Please enlighten me. Is Ricca an elected official and have the authority to address this unilaterally?

Bob D
Bob D
January 31, 2024 10:28 am
Reply to  Ray Riccio

If Ricca pulled this without notifing the SC, I don’t know who would believe that, who’s to say he doesn’t go shifty if he gets control of the $150 million and doesn’t inform the School Committee as in this so called scenario. This is riduculous.

January 31, 2024 8:03 pm
Reply to  Nicole Bucka

So did the school committee know about this letter being sent before it was sent Mrs. Bucka?

Alex M.
Alex M.
February 2, 2024 10:32 pm
Reply to  Nicole Bucka

That is indeed leadership. But like most things, there are all kinds of leadership. Good, bad, ugly, incompetent, divisive, or otherwise. On the one hand, there’s the kind of leadership that ignores town charters. And then there’s a kind of leadership that deprives taxpayers of millions of dollars of matching funds because of a naked power grab that disrupts a deal at the eleventh hour, very likely tanking a good deal for EG. And there’s the kind of leadership that places abrasive passive-aggressive comments in the local paper while attempting to claim the moral high ground and deliver a rousing call to arms in the name of children. And these different types of leadership are not mutually exclusive, mind you. They can and do overlap.

John Smalley
John Smalley
January 31, 2024 7:03 am

And so it begins……..

January 31, 2024 7:13 am

What happened to “transparency” and “relationship”?

Chris Lamendola
Chris Lamendola
January 31, 2024 8:08 am

What subordinate writes such a letter without notifying his employer (bosses) jeopardizing such a momentous project? This makes no sense and someone isn’t being truthful. Also,this doesn’t instill confidence with the public and those in charge of this project!

February 2, 2024 11:11 am

If this happened as the School Committee members say, in every business I know of, Supt Ricca would have been terminated immediately! Simple.

January 31, 2024 9:10 am

Checks, balances and transparency, are critical to public trust. This request that was made is a major pivot and puts full control into the SC.

It is unfortunate that a few SC members thought this would be a way to remove checks and balances, not go on the record and hide behind our supt attendant and not be transparent.

I would have expected public comment, a vote and the SC to be on the record before this request was submitted. Without transparency, checks and balances I do not trust the SC to execute this important investment, I support our council for not moving forward.

Your choices have removed checks and balances and transparency. The voters of EG are paying attention.

Rebecca Karb
Rebecca Karb
January 31, 2024 12:50 pm

While I’m not quite sure what the strategy behind this letter was (and no the School Committee was not alerted to it until after it was sent), it should be made clear that it is common practice for the School Committee and Superintendent to have oversight on a school building project. That is the norm. Period. What is *unusual* (and they said it themselves in the meeting!) is for a Town Council to come in a decide to try to take over a committee.

In fact, this question was raised in Barrington with the bond project and here’s what the Town Council PRESIDENT said:
“ Doing so would add confusion to the misconception that there is a hierarchy in our local government,” Brier wrote. “The School Committee is not subordinate to the Town Council. At a time when Town Council candidates are using inflammatory school issues as talking points for their campaign, we should be seeking to reinforce our actual roles in Barrington. Town Council responsibilities do not include oversight of the School Committee or the BPS facilities. The Council isn’t as informed about the existing challenges of the facilities, goals for changes, educational priorities, etc. It’s always concerning when folks who align with a brand of ‘less government’ are asking for government strong-arms tactics.”,107309

The letter, however ill-conceived, is really not the issue. The school committee was elected, and Dr. Ricca was hired, to run the schools. The Town Council was not, nor do they have any expertise in the area. They should stay in their lane.

January 31, 2024 6:29 pm
Reply to  Rebecca Karb

The best decisions are made by committees with varied backgrounds, needs, and intentions – it has been stated that the construction committee would include members of the SC, representing the education angle. TC members bring a fiduciary slant, town resident members bring the perspective of the “users”…and I would expect other committee members would inject other perspectives and interests into the mix.

Rebecca Karb
Rebecca Karb
January 31, 2024 7:06 pm
Reply to  D L

The “education angle”? It’s a school building project.

Matthew Tactacan
Matthew Tactacan
January 31, 2024 6:43 pm

Excellent reporting! Even though the news is a little disappointing, I am glad that you were able to catch this.

Chris Lamendola
Chris Lamendola
February 1, 2024 10:58 am

As a citizen who has been through the “ringer” with the Town, I don’t like being bamboozled by some elected officials saying they are in the dark sending letters to RIDE and stating they didn’t know. I also don’t appreciate at official meetings that our officials are making faces when others speak, texting, writing notes, on laptops while meetings are going on. This is not good government and I believe business is happening behind the “scenes” which is probably illegal.

I hope we will soon find out who knew what and when because I am suspicious of what we are being told. This is not the way such a momentous project, the biggest our town has even done, should be executed. Our elected official’s business should be done in public and voted on.

I have sent an APRA request for all pertinent communications arising from School Superintendent Dr. Brian Ricca’s submission of a Declaratory Order to the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE). I would post it here but obviously EGN doesn’t allow it. It can be found on several social media sites.

Hopefully we will soon find out! We as tax paying citizens also have rights.


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