Markey’s South Kingstown School Committee Conundrum—Guest MINDSETTER™ Schoos

Thursday, November 29, 2018


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Sarah Markey

In 2010, during the second year of his presidency, after a listening session with congressional Republicans, President Barak Obama reminded the group that “elections have consequences,” and “I won.”  Was this more than a little arrogant? You bet it was. Was Obama wrong? Nope, not in the slightest.    

On November 6, the Rhode Island community exercised its collective will to decide who will serve in our various federal, state, and local offices to work on our behalf for the next two, four, or six years depending on the office. In a democracy, when the people have expressed their collective will, elections do have consequences.

Therefore, it is a vital component of our democratic form of government that all candidates and office holders have as their primary, if not only, interest the people they were elected to serve. Clearly, I would be more than naïve if I didn’t say that isn’t the case.  Too often it is.

We live in a partisan age, perhaps a hyper-partisan one. Many of us gravitate to our tribes, waiting to be told who our tribe’s high chieftains have anointed as our champion(s). Sometimes we have the opportunity for input into that choice, but once the choice has been made, all of us tribal members are expected to fall in line. We are told that no matter how onerous the choice is,  no matter how disappointed we are that our first choice wasn’t selected, our choice is infinitely better than the evil choices of our rival tribes.

It’s good to belong to a group, or tribe if you will, that shares our beliefs and aspirations for ourselves, our families, and our communities. Of course, that isn’t always true as too often our tribes are the vehicles for the advancement of individual and/or special interests. We have seen officials appoint others to positions of trust who then advance their personal interests.

With the spiraling cost of our elections, well-healed groups and individuals contribute money to favored candidates, often giving those candidates a decided advantage over their opponents. It is not unheard of that once elected an officeholder will hear the loud voices of those who put her there, sometimes to the exclusion of all other voices.

We have this idea that democracy always works, but in truth, at best, it is always messy. Political parties are loose aggregations of interests competing for the spoils of elections. Over the years I’ve witnessed this distribution of spoils, for in the words of Will Rogers, “I belong to no organized political party. I’m a Democrat.” At times I’ve been in the room. At other times, I’ve seen the results. Too often policy decisions are made on zero-sum win/lose basis.

Because partisanship can become toxic, our founders cautioned against forming, in the words of Madison, “factions.” Washington warned against the formation of partisan political parties in his farewell address. Robert LaFollette led the “modern” reform movement in the 1910s and established nonpartisan offices in Wisconsin. The theory behind the blunting of factions and the formation of non-partisan elections was to give the individual voter a stronger voice in the election of officeholders. In addition, some offices such as elected judges and school committees are often deemed too important to the community to be left to naked partisan influences.

Rhode Island has an interesting dichotomy of school committee structures. For example, Providence has an appointed school board, while Cranston has an elected school committee. Warwick has a non-partisan elected school committee, while Smithfield’s is partisan. In non-partisan elections, all candidates run as independents.  In partisan elections, each party can run candidates, although individuals can run for office as independents.

This brings me to the controversy concerning the election of a member to the South Kingstown School Committee. Sarah Markey, an organizer for the National Education Association who reportedly earns $166,000 per year, received the second highest vote total in the School Committee election. She either ran as an Independent or a Democrat depending on whether the Board of Elections website or her campaign finance reports are to be believed.

More problematic than her political affiliation/non-affiliation are her finance reports, specifically her 28-day prior to election report filed on October 9. A quick review of her report indicates that she raised $2385 from individuals. While most of the listed contributors’ employment information is not completed, we know that $755 of that total, or nearly 32 percent, came from contributors with either union or municipal affiliations. What we don’t know is where the other 68 percent came from.

There’s absolutely nothing improper about union or municipal employees contributing to Markey’s campaign. Indeed, given her occupation, it would be surprising, and telling, if no union members contributed to her. In total she raised around $3000 for her campaign and spent most of it.

More troublesome is the fact that she is now an elected School Committee member whose task is to deal with a variety of issues that may impact her professional life, not to mention a significant number of direct or indirect union affiliated contributors. Many of these tasks present foreseeable conflicts of interests. I agree with the 2017 opinions of the Town Solicitor and School Committee counsel which determined that Markey, then seeking appointment to a vacant position, would need to recuse herself from all collective bargaining activities and voting on specific budget items. I would also assert reorganizing curricula, increasing/decreasing professional staff, the hiring/discharge of administrative staff including the Superintendent, and other ancillary issues that impact much of the School Committee’s attention. Indeed, it may not be too much of an exaggeration to suggest that she will need to recuse herself to such a degree that the only thing she could weigh in on is school lunch. Perhaps her recusal rate may result in there being a de facto open seat on the School Committee.

Elections have consequences and no doubt Ms. Markey is completing what Obama said in 2010, “And I won.” But is that enough? Shouldn’t we aspire to a higher level of civic engagement?

In the last analysis, elections aren’t decided by political parties, unions, business roundtables, social organizations, or wealthy donors. Elections are decided by us, people who come together as a community to determine what’s best for our community. We may disagree about what’s “best,” and that’s the fun of civic engagement in a democracy. But it requires each of us to be aware of issues and candidates’ positions on those issues and to be engaged in the processes of democracy during and after elections.

In a trial, a court will instruct that jury that they determine the facts of the case. They are allowed to square the evidence submitted with what they know to be objectively true based on their life experiences.  They can weigh the validity of testimony, accepting all of it, none of it, or even some of it. It takes engagement, concentration, and a willingness to get at the truth of the case.

Elections are no less a forensic exercise.  If I’m right, why is it we give so little attention to those who seek office and who may deliver unintended, yet foreseeable, consequences that the rest of us will need to live with?             

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Geoffrey A. Schoos, Esq is the President of the Rhode Island Center for Law and Public Policy     


Related Slideshow: Election Night 2018: Photos of Democratic Heaven and GOP Hell in RI


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