Norwich sticks with newly hired superintendent after she was placed on paid leave in R.I.

May 4, 2019

Norwich — Newly hired Norwich school Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow was placed on paid leave in her current district in South Kingstown, R.I., last week reportedly pending an investigation into how she conducted notices of possible teacher layoffs, according to news reports in two Rhode Island newspapers.

Norwich Board of Education Chairwoman Yvette Jacaruso said Friday she has read the news reports and talked to Stringfellow, and said the Norwich board is sticking with its unanimous vote on April 23 to hire Stringfellow. She will succeed current Norwich Superintendent Abby Dolliver, who will retire June 30. Stringfellow will earn $185,000 in Norwich.

“She still said she’s coming,” Jacaruso said. “She’s looking for a new beginning with the Norwich Public Schools.”

Stringfellow issued an email statement Friday evening regarding the South Kingstown situation.

“It is my understanding that the South Kingstown School Board wants to independently review the process we used to complete layoff notices,” Stringfellow wrote. “I was very surprised by the leave action, but I have a high degree of confidence in the administrators and support staff who worked with me on this very important task, and I am very confident that the independent review will find that the policies have been accurately and correctly applied, as has been done for the last decade.”

The 5-2 vote by the South Kingstown School Committee was taken following a morning closed-door meeting April 26. School Committee Chairwoman Stephanie Canter told The Day on Friday that since the situation was discussed in executive session, “my comments have to be fairly limited.” She referred to a story posted Friday in the Narragansett Times as an “accurate recap” of the vote. The story reported that Canter voted with the majority to suspend Stringfellow.

The Narragansett Times story and a second story in the South County Independent reported that the school committee’s investigation was related to how Stringfellow conducted layoff notices in the wake of the district’s budget crisis.

The Times story reported that with cuts in state aid, and funding from the Town Council falling short of the school committee’s request, South Kingstown plans to cut 21.7 full-time employees next year.

Elizabeth Osga, lead consultant in the Norwich superintendent search for the New England School Development Council, said the South Kingstown district is currently in financial and administrative turmoil.

Because of major funding cuts from the state and town, along with steadily declining enrollment, Stringfellow had proposed closing a school last year. But the resulting public backlash led to turnover on the school committee in the last election, and the committee reversed the vote.

Stringfellow’s letter of resignation submitted on April 24 and effective June 30, as quoted in a story in the South County Independent, hinted at the change in direction on the school committee. The committee accepted her resignation Friday.

“I have focused my work on the highest quality teaching and learning and student safety,” The Independent quoted from her resignation letter. “Unfortunately, priorities in our community have shifted from that focus. Therefore, I have made the difficult decision to take a position as superintendent in a school system where the well-being and achievement of students remains the ultimate priority. I will keep South Kingstown students, teachers, staff and families in my heart forever.”

Stringfellow is one of several South Kingstown top school officials planning to leave the district, the Independent reported. Assistant Superintendent Pauline Lisi, now in charge, announced on April 3 she will retire at the end of the school year. The director of pupil personnel services and two elementary school principals announced plans to leave the district.

Stringfellow, 52, has served as South Kingstown superintendent for the past 10 years. She was named Rhode Island Superintendent of the Year in 2017, a recognition that cited her technology initiatives at the high school and Spanish immersion program in younger grades.

Osga said Stringfellow was “pretty blunt” with the Norwich school board about her situation in South Kingstown during the screening and interview process.

“I think she’s kept the Norwich board informed on what’s going on there,” Osga said. “If there is new information, they will look at it. South Kingstown is in a difficult position.”