WOONSOCKET — After complaining publicly and threatening to file an open meetings complaint, School Committeewoman Vimala Phongsavanh says she was finally furnished with the names of the members of the committee in charge of searching for a new superintendent yesterday.
But Phongsavanh remained highly critical of the process, saying it has been unnecessarily opaque and closed off to input from communities of interest outside the school department.
“It's been a shady process,” asserted Phongsavanh, the newest member of the School Committee. “I don't understand why they've been so secretive.”
Tonight, less than two weeks after the superintendent's job posting closed, the members of the search committee are poised to interview three finalists from the pool of 106 original candidates, said Phongsavanh.
Phongsavanh said she does not know who the finalists are, but Interim Supt. Colette Trailor's secretary furnished her with a list of the names of the search committee members on Monday. The secretary, Dorothy DeRemer, also advised her that same procedures had been followed for the 2008 superintendent search, in which the identities of all committee members were not disclosed until after a superintendent was hired.
“It's illegal,” said Phongsavanh. “You can't keep the names of the search committee members secret.”
The school department apparently relented after Phongsavanh sent a letter to fellow members of the School Committee last week, saying she was concerned about the transparency and accountability of the actions of the search committee. In the letter, she referenced sections of the state Open Meetings Act, which compels any government body “or any subdivision thereof” to provide advance notice of meetings and keep the public apprised of its activities.
“As a member of the Woonsocket School Committee, I do not want the public to view our actions as questionable and dishonest, and I am sure you feel the same way,” the letter says. “We do not want anyone to file an action with Superior Court, of file a complaint with the Department of the Attorney General...”
Despite the purported prohibition on the release of the names of subcommittee members, another member of the School Committee managed to view a copy of the list, provided by personnel in the superintendent's office – no questions asked.
“I went in and I just told Dotty DeRemer, the secretary, I wanted to see the list and she showed it to me,” said Forcier. “I've had that runaround that Vimala experienced, which I'm very sorry for, but I'm not surprised.”
But Phongsavanh said when she asked for the same treatment as Forcier, the interim superintendent and an aide last week declined to let her see the list.
Asked if he shares Phongsavanh's concerns, School Committee Chairman Marc Dubois said, “Yes and no.”
School Committeewomen Eleanor Nadeau and Linda Majewski told Phongsavanh on July 13 that every member of the school board would receive a list of the subcommittee members when the roster was finalized, said Dubois. Nadeau and Majewski are on a personnel subcommittee in charge of the process.
Still, Dubois said, he was a little miffed on Friday when he learned — from Phongsavanh — that the subcommittee had already begun interviewing candidates.
“ I was a little surprised this past Friday when Vimala called and asked me if I received this list yet,” said Dubois. “I was upset, especially with me being chairman, that I had no idea they had scheduled interviews that Friday afternoon before even releasing the names of the people on this search committee.”
Dubois said he has since spoken with Majewski and she was “apologetic” for the lapse in communication. Dubois said she has been overwhelmed by a sickness in the family. Nadeau, he said, may have overlooked providing the information because she was going away for the weekend.
Neither Majewski nor Nadeau could be reached for comment yesterday.
There are 16 members of the search committee, according to documents obtained by The Call. With one notable exception — the inclusion of City Councilman Christopher Beauchamp — all have current or former ties to the school department.
The other members are Stacey Busby, director of administration and finance; Kathleen Lombardo, director of human resources; Jeffrey Partington, president of the Woonsocket Teachers Guild; Janet Sullivan, special education programs chairman; George Lacouture, retired director of grant; Kathy DiModica; instructional coach; Ron Celio, principal Fifth Avenue/Coleman schools; Steve Boss; vice principal, Woonsocket Middle School; Brian Bouley, vice principal, Woonsocket High School; Cindy Stepanian, co-chair Parent Advisory Committee; Denise Auclair, co-chair, Parent Advisory Committee; Lynn Kapiscas, chairperson of SELAC (Special Education Local Advisory Committee); Executive Secretary Dottie DeRemer; Alex Kithes, a WHS graduate; and Thomas Wrona, a retired teacher.
The lack of diversity on the panel is itself an issue, says Phongsavanh. In many communities, superintendent searches are carried out with aggressive, community-wide outreach that touches a variety of constituents and special interests, from the grassroots up.
“This has been very top down,” says Phongsavanh, who is finishing up her first term in elective office. “If this is the way they did things things I'm uncomfortable with it . It's sad for the community.”