NORTH SMITHFIELD – A North Smithfield town councilor is calling for the town’s School Committee to withhold its membership dues from the Rhode Island Association of School Committees over comments the group’s executive director made about a controversial federal response to local school board incidents.
Stephen Corriveau, a member of the North Smithfield Town Council, submitted the resolution during a council meeting on Monday, Nov. 1. The resolution calls for members of the North Smithfield School Committee to withhold the group’s membership dues from the Rhode Island Association of School Committees.
“Ultimately, I’m looking for an action this evening on this in the form of a vote on what I consider to be an extremely important matter that would inevitably affect our families as well as the taxpayers,” he said.
The resolution was in response to the recent controversy over a proposed federal inquiry into “an increase in harassment, intimidation and threats of violence” directed at local school boards. In September, the National School Board Association sent a letter to President Joe Biden requesting federal assistance to address a spike in incidents that they likened to a “form of domestic terrorism.” The organization later apologized for the language of the letter but said the safety of school board members, educators and students remains a top priority.
In a move criticized by Republican legislators, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland asked the FBI to step in and meet with local law enforcement leaders to address the issue.
Several state school board organizations withdrew their membership from the National School Board Association over the letter, but the R.I. Association of School Committees did not. RIASC Executive Director Timothy Duffy sent an email to members on Oct. 5 saying the RIASC “will contact our U.S. Attorney as well as the FBI and coordinate with them on what steps, if any, we need to take.”
“In the interim, please apprise me of any issues you have had during your committee meetings on topics such as mask mandates, issues with equity education, rights for LGBTQ and BIPOC students,” he wrote.
Topics such as masks mandates and teachings about race have made School Committee meetings into battlegrounds as parents air their often heated views on the subjects. In North Smithfield, several parents at the Aug. 17 School Committee meeting tried to shout over and ridicule speakers and committee members who did not share their views opposing mask mandates. One parent was later criticized for comparing the mandates to the Holocaust.
Corriveau said he submitted the resolution after hearing from parents who said they didn’t feel like they’d be heard at School Committee meetings after the recent events. “I do not condone violence or acts of violence, but civil discussion can happen, and it does get heated at times. As I’ve heard sitting on the council before from several people, if you can’t take the heat, then you shouldn’t take the position to lead,” he said.
Corriveau, elected to the Town Council last year, has been vocal about the issue of mask-wearing in schools, speaking against a mask mandate at the Aug. 17 meeting.
Other town councilors on Monday were less certain on the issue, with one expressing outright opposition to the idea of putting it before the council. Councilor Paul Vadenais said the resolution didn’t belong at a Town Council meeting, since the council has no control over School Committee matters except to approve their final budget.
“We cannot tell them how to spend one penny of that money. If you feel this is an issue that should be addressed at the school board, please go to the next school board meeting and address it with them. I’m not voting for this resolution. I see no reason for it,” he said.
Council President John Beauregard appeared undecided, asking Corriveau if he could make the issue relevant to North Smithfield. “I support you 100 percent in what you’re doing. I think your heart’s in the right place and your politics are definitely in the right place, but ... I’m wrestling with this,” he said.
The resolution drew comparisons to the short-lived Nike boycott of 2018, when Beauregard proposed boycotting Nike products in town contracts in response to the company’s sponsorship of Colin Kaepernick. The council approved the boycott but reversed their stance after a week after intense backlash from residents and others around the country.
Corriveau started his presentation with a 10-minute video of Republican legislators grilling Garland on the school board issue. Eijah Leduc, a resident of Woonsocket Hill Road, said the legislators in the video had nothing to do with North Smithfield and argued the resolution would cause more strife and division at a time when there was no room for those things.
“It just seems that Mr. Corriveau unfortunately resonates with them very strongly and has very visceral feelings about Merrick Garland and the Biden administration and is bringing it to that desk where it does not belong,” he said.
Councilor Claire O’Hara called the resolution “marvelous” and expressed support for Corriveau but said she’s afraid of how her support will affect her family, comparing it with her experience after voting in favor of the Nike boycott.
“I don’t even look at football, I just respect the American flag, and from that I had to have alarm systems put on my house. You want to talk about terrorism, these are the same people trying to get this enforced,” she said.
At O’Hara’s request, the council voted 4-1 to table the resolution to discuss at a future meeting. Councilor Kim Alves, the only member who did not speak on the matter, voted against the tabling.
Vadenais noted the resolution would have virtually no effect without a corresponding action by the School Committee. Reached by The Breeze on Tuesday, School Committee Chairman James Lombardi said he has no intention of taking up the issue.