School board to challenge fund embargo

School board to challenge fund embargo

SMITHFIELD - After a closed-door discussion Monday night, the School Committee instructed its lawyer to mount a legal challenge to the Town Council's embargo of a $450,000 school budget increase.

And in another matter, the committee, also by unanimous consensus without a formal vote, agreed to extend the contracts of Supt. Robert O'Brien and Asst. Supt. Bridget Morisseau an extra year through June of 2015.

Committee Chairman Richard Iannitelli, who has asserted that the council's embargo of the budget increase is illegal, said the challenge will come first through the state Department of Education, and then the courts if that is necessary.

"The mechanics have begun to come to a sensible resolution," he said, adding that since taxpayers approved the budget increase at the June 13 Financial Town Meeting, they feel schools deserve the money.

The council's motion as passed by the voters approves the additional money, but puts it into a separate escrow account pending the completion of a performance audit to determine if the board spends its money wisely.

The council says it will decide whether to release the money based on the audit's findings, and reserves the right to direct how the funds will be spent if they are released.

Iannitelli says that's an illegal infringement on committee authority, and that as a board, "We don't believe it's in the best interest of the town of Smithfield."

He said he expects the lawyer, Benjamin M. Scungio, to report back on a suggested plan of action by next month.

Iannitelli said he has no problem with the decision for an audit, but is concerned because such studies take time and often suggest changes that can take years to implement. Meanwhile, he said, his board is uncertain of its finances with the new fiscal year about to begin July 1.

O'Brien and Morisseau each have clauses in their contracts that give the committee until June 30 of this year to inform them in writing that it does not intend to renew the pacts when they expire on June 30, 2014.

Iannitelli said no one during the discussion suggested invoking the non-renewal clause, so the two contracts automatically will continue in force until June 30, 2015.

The matter is closed and will not be brought up again at the board's June 27 meeting, the last before the deadline passes, he said.

Meanwhile, a call to give O'Brien a non-renewal notice came in a full-page advertisement in today's Valley Breeze & Observer, paid for by businessman Alfred Costantino, a confirmed O'Brien critic.

Asserting that with salary and benefits O'Brien's contract is worth some $165,000 a year, Costantino wrote that even if the board does invoke the non-renewal clause now, it still could reverse direction next year and renew the pact before it expires.

The difference, he said, is that by avoiding the automatic extension now, the committee would also be free if it desired to let O'Brien go in 2014 without having to pay him for an extra year.

Costantino's ad reviewed a number of issues he has raised over the past two years, including a set of School Committee minutes that vanished, a school bus contract that he says wasted taxpayer money, and an $800,000 window replacement project at the Old County Road School that he says was ineptly handled.

Costantino also criticized O'Brien's candidacy for the superintendent's job in Barrington, where he reached finalist status in 2012 before losing out.

Addressing O'Brien in his ad, Costantino said, "You are not here by choice, you are here because Barrington did not hire you."

Asked about his future plans after the open portion of Monday's school board meeting, O'Brien, 61, said he has no desire to work elsewhere and hopes to finish his career in Smithfield.

O'Brien, who has led the district since 2002, is in his 20th year with the school system, having worked his way up from tenures as principal of the Old County Road School and assistant superintendent.

He said on Monday that he harbors no thoughts of retirement, not necessarily even at 65, because he enjoys his work and hopes to keep at it as long as he feels that he's effective.

O'Brien's peers around the state named him Rhode Island's "Superintendent of the Year" in 2009.