By Meg O’Neil
During a brief but heated meeting on Monday, Dec. 17, the Newport School Committee voted to increase the salary of Curriculum and Instruction Director Caroline Frey - an action that led some committee members to question the ethics of other members. The 4 – 3 decision was opposed by Jo Eva Gaines, Sandra Flowers, and Charlie Shoemaker.
Frey is an employee of the Newport School Department whose job is to develop and implement the district’s curriculum as well as analyze data from standardized tests. The school committee’s decision will raise her salary by $10,000 to $104,544 – which is approximately $5,000 more than the salaries of the city’s elementary school principals.
When Gaines asked why the committee was negotiating the increase, committee member Rebecca Bolan said it is the job of the school committee to recruit, select, and employ the best and most qualified personnel. “We as a school district are in bad shape in terms of our financial reporting,” Bolan said. “We are getting back on track in our technology department, but we cannot afford to be gapped in terms of curriculum going into the new school. It would be a big travesty going forward.”
Two other school districts are alleged to be vying to hire Frey. Members of the school committee felt it necessary to increase her pay in order to keep her in Newport schools.
“If we’re going to keep people in this district, we have to be somewhat competitive,” Bolan said.
Superintendent John Ambrogi questioned whether in fact other districts had offered Frey a job. “I don’t think [she] has been offered any position at all,” he said. “You don’t know that, and I don’t know that. [Frey] could be using this as a bargaining chip to get more money … this is bad public policy.”
School Committee Chairman Patrick Kelley then accused Ambrogi of creating “bad policy” himself: “I recognize that the superintendent’s advice has always been ‘If [employees] want more money, let them quit and go someplace else,’” Kelley said. “That’s bad for employees’ morale, and bad for our students.” Kelley said that the superintendent has expressed the same idea on several occasions during executive and negotiating sessions.
When asked if that was indeed his position, Ambrogi said, “No. My position is, quite honestly, if they want more money and are offered a new position, they can come back to us and talk about it.”
Ambrogi said that evaluation of school administrators should not be up to the seven-member committee, and that it’s his responsibility to make any recommendations for extra salary compensation.
The other members of the committee voiced their opinions on the issue:
Sandra Flowers said her concern was the ethics of voting on the salary of one person and not all administrators. “I don’t like the sounds of this,” she said. “My question is - which I don’t even want answered out loud right now - but did this individual approach certain members of the school committee? Or did members of the school committee approach the individual? Either way, that’s an ethical question.”
Robert Leary was in favor of the increase. “At our last meeting with City Council, Ambrogi said we’re having a hard time getting people to come here.”
According to Leary, last year a teaching position at Thompson Middle School drew 455 applicants. At the administrative level, however, the numbers are far lower, making the search for qualified individuals a harder task, with the result that administrative positions remain vacant for long periods of time. Leary predicted that if Frey left, it would take a year to find a person to fill the position. He also said that three of the city’s principals are 10-month employees and make more money than Frey, who is not only a 12-month employee as curriculum director, but also is part-time principal at the Triplett-Sullivan school.
Charles Shoemaker objected to the increase, saying he believed that salary changes should be recommended by the superintendent. He was also concerned that the committee’s negative votes would be interpreted as a “slap in her face.”
Shoemaker said that the request for a salary increase for one employee has created a backlash among other members of the administrative staff. “Her job is to go to the principals and teachers to get curriculum involvement,” he said. “I’m fearful the passage of this motion will not be well received by other administrators.”
Kelley said that the committee would be willing to meet with other administrators to ratify their contracts down the road.
Thomas Phelan voted to approve the increase, saying that it would save another school department from falling into disarray. “With the new school opening, if we lose a person at this position, you can’t replace them. I want everything to be smooth going in to the new school,” he said. “I don’t want any headaches, and I don’t want to see the same problems we’re having in the business office. If we can’t get somebody, it just continues year after year.”
Gaines, who has served on school boards at the local, state and national level for 30 years, said in all those years, she has never seen a board promote one single individual without the recommendation of the CEO. Gaines said the decision to give a salary increase to an administrator who “wants something above and beyond what the other administrators are receiving” made her feel uncomfortable. “I can’t ethically support it,” she said.
Gaines also questioned the timing of the late December meeting. In a matter of weeks, Kelley will be replaced on the committee by Robert Powers, who was elected in November.
“What worries me is the appearance of a lame-duck majority here, making a decision as a last gasp,” Gaines said. “I’m not sure it is that way, but that’s the way it appears in the community.”