Report: Norwich superintendent mishandled proposed staff cuts in last post

An independent investigation ordered by the South Kingstown, R.I., School Committee found that now-Norwich Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow failed to follow proper procedures in issuing dozens of potential layoff and re-assignment notices connected with budget cuts in April, four days before she was named to the Norwich post.

Stringfellow sent out the notification letters April 19, just days before she unanimously was approved as the new Norwich superintendent on April 23, her term to start July 1. In response to complaints about how the notices were handled, the School Committee placed Stringfellow on paid administrative leave on April 26 and hired Providence attorney Charles A. Ruggerio to investigate the complaints. Stringfellow remained on paid leave in South Kingstown until she started her Norwich position officially on July 1.

The South Kingstown School Committee reviewed Ruggerio’s 28-page report at its meeting Tuesday and voted to release the report to the public.

Ruggerio concluded that Stringfellow failed to follow the proper procedure for handling personnel decisions, and her failure to meet with teachers prior to sending notices of involuntary transfers and provide them with reasons for the transfers was a violation of the collective bargaining agreement. Stringfellow also failed to notify the school committee prior to sending the April 19 notices, despite frequent communication with Chairwoman Stephanie Canter on other issues.

“In summary, it is clear that Stringfellow was aware of the established process for handling personnel decisions and failed to adhere to them, creating unnecessary issues for both the School Department and the affected teachers,” Ruggerio concluded. “This failure, in the least, amounted to negligence perhaps because she was engaged in the process of transitioning to her new position outside the School Department. There is no evidence that any School Committee member was aware of the deficiencies or Stringfellow’s notices prior to the time they were issued, and thus, there was no way for the Committee to have avoided the problem.”

Reached by phone Wednesday, Canter said the committee took no action on the report Tuesday, other than to release it after redacting numerous attachments that identified specific teachers involved in the notices that subsequently were rescinded.

“We didn’t discuss it,” Canter said. “I think probably the feeling in the committee and the community is to just move on.”

Stringfellow said Wednesday she had not received or read the full report. She is out of the office due to a family emergency this week. In a brief email response to questions, she said she will read the full report and issue comments at that time.

“I believe I followed all school board policies and RI laws (as I have done successfully since 2009),” she wrote in the email. “I did not lay-off or terminate any employees. I simply gave teachers appropriate notice, in accordance with RI Open Meeting laws, that the School Board would be discussing them in an executive session of the School Board.”

Norwich Board of Education Chairwoman Yvette Jacaruso said the Norwich board was aware of the general controversy in South Kingstown but not specifics of the complaints about notifications to teachers about possible layoffs or transfers. Jacaruso said the investigation report will have no bearing on the decision to hire Stringfellow and that the Norwich board is very pleased with her initial month in the position.

“For what we can tell, in the four weeks she’s been with us, she’s done an outstanding job in meeting with everyone in city government, teachers, administrators and parents,” Jacaruso said. “She’s gone above and beyond making herself known that she wants to work collaboratively with everyone involved. She’s met with union leaders. She’s been very cooperative and open about it.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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