Investigation

Superintendent Leaked Private Student Information To A Union, Activists Tried To ‘Bury’ And ‘Distract’ Using Racism Claims

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A local federation of unions accessed the names and addresses of students in Rhode Island and used the personal info to send mailers to residents encouraging them to vote for a proposal that could put money in union members’ pockets. 

In April, the AFL-CIO, a federation of unions whose affiliates include construction laborers and the American Federation of Teachers, mailed a flyer to the homes of schoolchildren in the South Kingstown School District (SKSD) encouraging their parents to vote in favor of a proposed $85 million infrastructure bond.

On Friday, a community group that was supportive of the bond said one of its board members had secretly obtained the data from Superintendent Linda Savastano and provided it to the AFL-CIO, and accused both the superintendent and its board member of covering up their actions.

After the mailer went out, parents were furious, prompting the South Kingstown Town Council to investigate how the labor union got hold of students’ names and addresses. According to local news outlets, Savanstano said that rules allow the school district to share directory information, but denied that it had given the data to the AFL-CIO. “Please know we do not take this lightly,” she told WPRI

Amid the controversy over potential improper union influence and conflict of interest, the school district shifted focus by hurling allegations of racism.

On June 2, school board chair Emily Cummiskey posted a statement on Facebook that attacked resident Nicole Solas, who had filed public records requests asking about the district’s curriculum, and the national group Parents Defending Education (PDE).

Both had submitted public records requests to find out about the school’s increasing racial rhetoric in the community; the district attempted to charge Solas thousands of dollars, leading her to break up her requests into many smaller ones.

“The individual responsible for more [than] 200+ [public record] requests in recent weeks has been linked directly to a national, racist group working to spread chaos, confusion, and dismantle anti-racism in schools nationwide,” Cummiskey wrote, saying that was PDE’s “MO.” 

PDE is a new, bipartisan group run by two women of color.

Cumminskey revealed on June 8 that the statement in her name was actually written by a PR firm the district hired at taxpayer expense.

The vice-chair of the district’s school board, Sarah Markey, works as an assistant executive director of the state chapter of the National Education Association (NEA), the nation’s largest labor union. The NEA works hand-in-hand with the AFL-CIO, and Cumminskey and Markey were aligned as part of a faction on the school board.  

In her capacity as a school board member, Markey sat in school committee meetings with NEA officials on multiple occasions. In 2020, the Rhode Island Ethics Commission concluded an investigation by determining that Markey did not violate the state’s ethics statute with her dual roles.

On June 10, the school board was set to discuss placing Savastano on leave pending the results of the mailer investigation. But it backed down after a document disseminated by unknown activists asked progressives in the 87%-white district to show up “IN LARGE NUMBERS” to stop it, saying “White Supremacist Playbooks have NO PLACE IN OUR SCHOOLS” — perhaps seeking to draw numbers from those who did not understand what the personnel action was actually about.

Apparently, as a result of the pressure, the school board removed the agenda item. The activists’ document was amended to say: “Update: THANK YOU TO ALL THAT SUPPORTED SK! The School Committee voted to remove the agenda items that would have placed the Superintendent on leave. Community comment was inspiring and hopeful.  Keep making good trouble, folks.”

But on June 11, the volunteer organization Friends of South Kingstown Schools (FOSKS), which was supportive of the $85 million bond, said it found out that one of its board members had secretly obtained the students’ information from Savano and pressured it to “bury” and “distract” from the mailer scandal. 

FOSKS said it removed Stacy Bodziony from its board, saying “We are deeply disturbed that, in the weeks following April 24, 2021, there was no effort made by Ms. Bodziony nor Ms. Savastano to share with us any details regarding the circumstances surrounding the access and release of student directory information for the purposes of this AFL-CIO mailer. We are also saddened by Ms. Savastano’s public denial of involvement in her previous statements to the community.”

“As parents and community members, we have been deeply distressed by the breach of privacy of our students from the moment it became apparent,” it added. “At the time, we had expressed a desire to issue a statement written by FOSKS condemning the release of information, but this was discouraged by Ms. Bodziony, who had instructed us to ‘bury’ and ‘distract’ from the topic, for fear that this would damage the prospects of the bond.” 

On June 8, Cummiskey announced that she had resigned as school committee chair but that she would still serve on the board. 

Savastano and Cummiskey did not respond to requests for comment. 

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