The teachers union’s votes of no confidence in both the director of pupil personnel services and her assistant last week was portrayed by Supt. Phil Auger as an overreaction to special education issues that are now under control. For union President Kevin Dubois, alternatively, not enough action had been taken and the public needed to know the program had problems.
Dubois issued this statement on behalf of the union executive committee Jan. 20:
Over the last three months, there have been ongoing unresolved issues about the Special Education Programs in the North Kingstown School Department and the implementation of student’s Individual Education Plans. Due to these issues, three different schools, North Kingstown High School, Hamilton Elementary School and Stony Lane Elementary School, have voted no confidence in Patricia Pezzullo, Director of Pupil Personnel Services and Kathy Perry, Assistant Director of Pupil Personnel Services. There has been an attempt to resolve these issues internally to this date, but with recent school committee actions approving administrator contract extensions with raises, this issue needs to be shared with the public.
“I feel it's unfair to Dr. Pezzullo and Mrs. Perry,” Auger said in an interview Friday. “I just think they went from A to Z in a hurry,” he said, referring to the union.
Changes in special education in the district were prompted by the state Dept. of Education during a visit last year as well as changes in the program for students with behavior issues.
According to Auger, RIDE told the school department that middle and high school special ed students needed to be taught by teachers qualified in the different subject areas, such as math or science, rather than by a special education teacher. That meant integrating special ed students into the regular ed classes while providing supports, prompting a lot of schedule changes that were enacted last September.
“The complaint from some of the teachers at the high school was that these changes have happened too quickly and parent notification should have been made,” Auger said. “Maybe communication wasn't always perfect between schools and Dr. Pezzullo,” he acknowledged. “I take full responsibility for this myself, better communication with the staff at the high school would have helped – what needed to happen and why.”
Still, he said, communication with the high school has improved.
Dubois agreed, to a point. But said he wasn’t sure the superintendent would have taken action if a vote of no-confidence hadn’t been taken by high school teachers in September.
“All of the issues with special ed in North Kingstown go all the way back to last spring. Ever since last spring, when these issues came up, we’ve tried to solve it internally with the director, with the superintendent. That’s always has it was done,” Dubois said.
“We’d tried in the summer to resolve issues and were put off again and again,” he said. “The implementation of it was a total nightmare. It was a large-scale issue…. To write one or two grievances didn’t handle the length and breath of all the issues.”
At Stony Lane, the issue involved a request for additional staffing after the late August registration of two special education students.
“It’s hard to make staffing changes at that point,” said Auger. “Through the fall, it was becoming clear, they were having problems and needed extra staff to help out.”
Still, he said, requests for extra staffing aren’t uncommon. “I have a responsibility to take care of those issues, but I need to look at them,” Auger said. “While that was going on, people were getting impatient with me and Dr. Pezzullo.”
He said the first complaints were made in September and early October. Extra staff was added in January.
“In all of those situations, I do have responsibility to communicate with people better and the same is true for Dr. Pezzullo,” he said. “But I also think the same is true for the teachers and Mr. Dubois.”
In particular, Auger said he had heard no complaints since September from teachers at Hamilton Elementary and didn’t realize there was a problem there until Dubois’s press release last week.
Dubois disputed that account, saying he had notified Auger and School Committee Chairwoman Kim Page of problems at Hamilton.
He said the executive board decided to go public only after the Jan. 14 meeting where Pezzullo was praised for her job performance when her contract and that of two other administrators were voted upon.
The School Committee approved three-year contract renewals and raises for Pezzullo , Mary King and Michele Humbyrd at that meeting. Pezzullo got a raise of $2,244, to $114,444. King got a raise of $7,800, to $120,000 and Humbyrd got a $5,000 raise, to $125,000.
“She deserves the raise that she got,” Auger said of Pezzullo. “Our administrators get paid year-by-year and a lot of that is based on their performance. She’s done a remarkable job. She’s brought this district into compliance.”
“At different times, we have spoken to teachers about pay based on performance,” he said. “And that's just a place where teachers union doesn't want to go, but that's the world our administrators live in.”
Dubois said the comments made Jan. 14, “ just flew in the face of everything we’ve been saying… I felt at this point that the public needed to know. Handling it internally doesn’t seem to be having much of an effect."