2009-12-24 / News

Suspended high school principal sues North Kingstown

By Eileen M. Daly

North Kingstown High School Principal Gerald F. Foley has filed suit against the town through its finance director, members of the school committee, the superintendent and Cayer Caccia, LLP, the accounting firm that produced the report in which “questionable activity” was found regarding the school’s activities accounts.

Foley’s lawsuit contains numerous allegations, including defamation, invasion of privacy, tortious interference with economic advantage, open meeting violation, violation of R.I. Constitution, Article I, Sec. 21, which addresses the right to free speech, violation of the Whistleblowers’ Protection Act, civil rights violations and equal access to justice violations.

The 17-page complaint was filed in Washington County Superior Court by Foley’s attorney, Stephen M. Robinson, of the Providence law firm Robinson and Clapham. The lawsuit names School Committee members Douglas Roth, Melvoid Benson and Kimberly Page “in their offi cial capacity,” whereas committee chairman Larry Ceresi, vice chair April Brunelle and committee members Linda Avanzato and Richard Welch are named “in their individual and official capacities,” as is Superintendent Phil Thornton.

The lawsuit is the latest development in an ongoing battle between Foley and the school committee led by Thornton – a battle that essentially began on Nov. 24, when the school committee voted, on Thornton’s recommendation, not to renew Foley’s contract in 2010. Prior to this vote, Foley had requested a temporary restraining order to prevent the vote from taking place, indicating his desire to be heard with his attorney present and alleging that the open meeting of the school committee in which the vote was to take place would result in irreparable harm.

That restraining order was denied by Washington County Superior Court Justice Edwin Gale, who said Foley had failed to satisfy the requirements for obtaining a temporary restraining order. Gale also concluded that the school committee acted within the law.

The lawsuit alleges that the named violations occurred as a result of the “housecleaning zeal of the defendants,” to remove any administrators who served under former Superintendent James Halley. Calling Foley a “political target,” the suit states, “Defendants Ceresi, Avanzato, Brunelle and Welch were among those calling for Dr. Halley’s removal.”

When asked what motivation Superintendent Thornton would have for this “politically motivated” attack – given that he was not here at the time and has no known connection to any events that occurred at that time – Foley’s attorney offered no response.

Superintendent Thornton declined to comment on the lawsuit, but said that he would speak to concerns reflected in the R.I. Dept. of Education report as soon as it is available.

Committee member Linda Avanzato responded to the allegations by saying, “It’s critical that we not be distracted by this lawsuit from the work that we need to complete. The school committee must remain focused on bringing our high school into compliance with the new standards for graduation and curriculum alignment set forth by RIDE. We are far behind in this endeavor, and if we do not meet compliance, we will be unable to issue Regentsapproved diplomas to our graduating seniors in 2012. Mr. Foley’s personal claims and personal attacks on the school committee are further indication of his unwillingness to work with the committee on matters.”

Roth called the “whole thing” unfortunate.

“I think members of the committee were named personally because they were very aggressive in making the case against the principal – even issuing a signed public statement against Mr. Foley representing a quorum of the committee outside properly scheduled meeting processes and the Open Meetings Act. This might lead some people to believe there was a premeditated agenda. Poorly conceived audits designed to expose certain specific people lead to conflicts like this. Targets have a right to defend themselves and their names and often times, they will,” he said.

Welch said that “any thinking individual” can see that the case has “no merit whatsoever.”

He emphasized the fact that the committee operated within its official capacity and did not violate any laws.

“My understanding of R.I. law is that I would have to have stepped outside of the boundaries of the office I was elected to in order to be sued personally,” he said.

Welch also stated his objection to the way in which the committee learned of the lawsuit and his belief that it was an attempt to intimidate the committee prior to the non-renewal vote.

“When you hand out the proposed lawsuit to one individual and have it forwarded to the committee prior to the vote, is that intimidation?” he asked.

Avanzato also objected to what she called “an improper attempt to influence the committee,” by Foley’s attorney.

“I am troubled by the tactics of Mr. Foley and his lawyer,” she said. “The lawsuit should have been sent to the attorney for the school committee, as Mr. Foley and his lawyer were well aware the committee was represented by counsel in the matter.”

School Committee Chairman Larry Ceresi said he was “very troubled” by the actions of both Foley and his legal counsel.

“Mr. Foley will receive all administrative due process rights that are afforded to him under the law,” he said. “As far as the merit or validity of Mr. Foley’s complaint, I think the comments made in a recent Superior Court decision by Justice Gale clearly speak for themselves…the school committee and superintendent have attempted to work with Mr. Foley from the start. Unfortunately, instead of working together and addressing the important educational issues, he has chosen to turn this into a circus. It’s divisive to the schools and the community and right now, the only ones who are benefiting from it are the attorneys.”

Ceresi said he will continue to focus on the education of the students.

“I am very concerned with the current status of the state-mandated, proficiency-based graduate diploma requirements at our high school. My energy and focus are on RIDE’s visit to our high school last week and their impending report from that visit,” he said.

Calls to Gerald Foley were not returned.

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