Smithfield Supt. O'Brien answers charges

Smithfield Supt. O'Brien answers charges

I write this editorial in response to Mr. Costantino's recent ad placed in the Observer.

Over the last two decades, the School Committee and I have always kept our focus on the best interests of the students as well as the taxpayers in Smithfield. In that time period, neither the committee nor I have ever been criticized over the quality of education in Smithfield. Most citizens would agree that our school system provides a good quality education for the town's youth.

As a result of reductions in state and federal financial support and level funding from the town for three years, the School Committee and I were forced to make some tough decisions to keep a balanced budget. We explored and discussed many options including eliminating programs, closing a school and cutting sports. To make the best use of the funds we were given, I made recommendations that had the least impact on students which included elimination of some academic programming. Those decisions still allowed us to maintain the quality of education in Smithfield.

Mr. Costantino made some specific allegations that are worth examining:

1.) Missing executive session minutes.

In one of multiple requests for information from Mr. Costantino, he asked for a copy of minutes of an executive session of School Committee meeting which took place over five years ago. Mr. Costantino was not entitled to have a copy of those minutes because they are not public documents under Rhode Island law. However, the minutes of that particular meeting could not be found. The matter was reported to the Attorney General's Office and the lost document was determined to be the result of human error. Since then I have put a procedure in place so that it will never happen again.

2.) Old County Road heating and window contract.

It was determined by the School Committee, based on my recommendation, that windows and certain heating equipment needed repair and replacement at our Old County Road School. The school district and town jointly bid out these services and goods on March of 2011. We had an architect certify the necessary work and materials to accomplish this project.

The window work was completed, inspected and approved by the building inspector. There is a dispute over the heater unit controls. The district and the town are working together with the contractor to resolve the issue.

3.) Failure to file appropriate paperwork for installation of a toilet.

Two years ago, a former employee was charged with installing a small toilet in the central office. As part of his responsibility, that maintenance worker was supposed to submit certain paperwork. It was not filed. When the omission was brought to my attention, the proper paperwork was filed and the installation work was approved by the state plumbing inspector.

4.) Intervention block programming at the high school.

In 2011, for several months, the high school implemented an intervention block which was the result of cuts to some of our electives. These cuts were necessary to maintain a balanced budget. I requested that RIDE review the intervention model. RIDE responded that a hearing would be necessary to fully determine the issue. Rather then spending additional resources and legal fees, I recommended the hiring of a part time family consumer science teacher and the School Committee agreed with my recommendation.

5.) Supplemental Benefit Plan.

Mr. Costantino has appeared numerous times before the School Committee and other bodies arguing that a benefit plan offered by the district to its administrators was in violation of federal law for various reasons. After hearing multiple complaints from Mr. Costantino at multiple meetings, the School Committee hired a tax and ERISA benefits expert to review the benefit plan. She concluded that the plan was legally appropriate and in good form. She made one recommendation - to change the name of the plan from a cafeteria plan to a supplemental benefit plan. The committee followed her advice and adopted the new name at a recent meeting.

Incidentally, the School Committee asked that attorney to report publicly on her findings. At that meeting Mr. Costantino was encouraged to put all his questions and issues to the lawyer. She fully answered each of his queries.

6.) Student participation at School Committee meetings.

Smithfield is one of the few communities in the state that allow a student representative on the School Committee. I am proud of our student involvement in Smithfield and their voices are heard and I encourage their active participation whenever possible.

For instance, at a recent Town Council budget workshop, two high school students spoke to the Town Council about the need for an additional music teacher at the high school. I believe their voices were heard because at the Financial Town Meeting the School Department budget was tentatively increased by $150,000 above the $300,000 increase recommended by the town manager.

If the town releases those funds before the start of school, I would be able to hire the part time music teacher.

Over the past two decades I have been privileged to lead outstanding administrators, teachers, paraprofessionals, secretaries, building and grounds staff, and custodians who give 100 percent each day to do what is in the best interest of students. I want to thank the School Committee for their support over the past two decades and for always doing what is in the best interest of the students and the taxpayers.

Robert O'Brien

Superintendent of Smithfield schools