RI School Superintendents Group: “We all know many of our citizens live in a separate news reality with Fox, Newsmax and their ilk”
Documents obtained by Legal Insurrection Foundation reveal that Rhode Island School Superintendents Association was working with “our union friends” to modify public records laws, while demonizing parents like Nicole Solas who sought records of Critical Race and Gender teaching.
The South Kingstown, Rhode Island, School Committee triggered a national controversy when it threatened to sue local mother Nicole Solas, who has a child enrolled in kindergarten for the fall, alleging Solas was serving too many public information requests regarding Critical Race and Gender efforts in the schools.
What started out as a controversy over an individual mother seeking information blossomed into a larger issue which has revealed efforts by school superintendents to fight back against parents allegedly associated with “right wing” groups, particularly Parents Defending Education (PDE).
Legal Insurrection Foundation has learned that the Rhode Island School Superintendents Association (RISSA) is spearheading an effort to alter the RI Access to Public Records Act (APRA), using highly charged partisan political messaging among its members. RISSA has enlisted the help of friendly legislators and unions in a behind-the-scenes effort that denigrates “many of our citizens [who] live in a separate news reality with Fox, Newsmax and their ilk.”
Background – Threats To Sue Nicole Solas
The story of the threatened lawsuit against Solas was first published in an op-ed by Solas at Legal Insurrection, and then spread far and wide. For detailed background, please see our prior posts:
- I’m A Mom Seeking Records Of Critical Race and Gender Curriculum, Now The School Committee May Sue To Stop Me
- South Kingstown (RI) School Committee Votes NOT To Sue Mom Nicole Solas Who Sought CRT Records
- South Kingstown Mom Nicole Solas: “They smear people who ask them questions, who disagree with them”
- Update: Smear of Mom Nicole Solas Was Prepared By Public Relations Firm Hired By South Kingstown (RI) School Committee
The short version is that Solas served approximately 200 APRA requests, after school officials allegedly did not provide her the information she was seeking. Solas asserted that school officials instructed her to use that method, and that the number of requests was high because she found the school officials more responsive to narrow individual requests, than one large request. She also asserted that serving specific separate requests kept the costs down, as the school district once wanted to charge her over $9,000.
Solas said that initially the school district was cooperative, but then was shocked to find her name on a School Committee Agenda for public hearing as to whether the School District should sue her. She also was the target of a campaign by the School Committee Chair Emily Cummiskey accusing Solas of being connected to a “national racist group.” The accusation was made to the Providence Journal, in a Facebook post (archive), and again at the public hearing, where for the first time Cummiskey identified PDE as the supposedly national racist group in question. The accusation has been repeated by other local media.
The lobbyist for RISSA also gave a statement to the Projo:
Timothy Ryan, lobbyist for the Rhode Island Association of School Superintendents, identified the group responsible for bombarding school officials with public records requests as Parents Defending Education.
“They want to cripple” the South Kingstown schools as officials are busy with next year’s budget and pandemic rules, he said.
[Note – as we have written multiple times before, we know PDE and two of their top officials, Nicole Neily and Asra Nomani, have appeared at Legal Insurrection Foundation webinars. To term PDE “racist” is outrageous.]
At the end of the meeting it was revealed that the District made no attempt to resolve the dispute with Solas prior to putting the lawsuit on the agenda. That led to the Committee passing a motion not to sue but also directing the district’s attorney to try “mediation” of the dispute.
Solas has publicly denied working with other groups, much less a “racist” group, with regard to the public requests to the South Kingstown School District.
After the national attention, and at a subsequent School Committee meeting, Cummiskey blamed a Public Relations firm working with the School Committee’s legal counsel, for the accusations made against Solas:
And at this time I would like to let my fellow committee members know that I am going to be resigning as the chair. I would also like to just offer that, just a few points of clarity because it feels something the last person could have spoken for a couple more minutes. It feels like this agenda item was put in very quickly after last Wednesday’s meeting, and, I wanted to clarify what happened in the events that led up to last Wednesday’s meeting. I was approached by Fox News, as I believe we all were, requesting a statement and several od, two of my fellow school committee members reached out, encouraging me to make a statement, as the chair, I would be responsible for, the person that made a statement for the, made a statement in reaction to the Fox News story.
I said that I was not comfortable doing so unless I reached out and consulted with our legal team. It was a time-sensitive manner as there was a deadline and Aubrey [legal counsel] worked tirelessly along with a PR firm that she obtained to create a statement to this unprecedented situation. The PR firm delivered me three statements, one for social media, one for Fox News, and one to read at last Wednesday’s meeting. I’m not a media specialist, I’m not a PR specialist and I’m not an attorney. So what I did is I followed the advice of the PR firm that our legal team obtained.
I am a masters prepared educator. I believe to my core that every single person has potential. I believe in equity, I believe in anti-racism. So I made those statements that the PR firm gave to me to make. They encouraged me not to follow up, not to respond. And I followed that advice. I take responsibility for okaying an agenda last Wednesday that was inflammatory. I don’t believe that any individual was trying to create more chaos.
Suspicions of Something Else Behind The Attacks On Solas
On June 4, 2021, the Legal Insurrection Foundation served a public records request on the South Kingstown School District seeking, among other things, records as to the statements by Cummiskey about Solas and PDE. Those records should reveal the approval process and PR firm, but we have not yet received a response as South Kingstown invoked a statutory extension of time to respond.
As I wrote on June 9, 2021, the aggressiveness of the attack on Solas did not make any sense. Why the over-the-top and vitrolic reaction to Solas? Why no attempt to resolve it before putting the vote whether to sue her on the public agenda? Why drag PDE into it?
Something more had to be going on, I surmised, and that something seemed to involve RISSA:
The aggressiveness with which the South Kingstown (Rhode Island) School Committee went after local mom Nicole Solas, for filing a series of public records requests regarding Critical Race and Gender activities in the school system, has never made sense. We now have a partial answer – the smear of Nicole in public statements by the School Committee Chair was drafted by a Public Relations firm….
From the get-go I felt something else was going on here. That Nicole was being singled out and made an example of for some other reason….
Why was PDE dragged into it not only by Cummiskey, but also by the lobbyist for the Rhode Island School Superintendents Association (RISSA) in a statement to the Providence Journal? That narrative is being pushed in local media, where there is fearmongering about other districts being subjected to extensive public records requests.
I don’t believe in coincidence, or that this narrative is organic. Something else is going on here. Last Friday, June 4, 2021, I filed a public records request with the South Kingstown school district seeking, among other things, records of communications with the Superintendents Association and public sector unions regarding Nicole and/or PDE, and records as to how Cummiskey’s statements were approved….
Something is going on here that has nothing to do with Nicole. We will be investigating whether there is a coordinated effort to intimidate the public into not filing public record requests regarding Critical Race activities in schools by smearing them as racist.
As mentioned above, we have not yet received a substantive response to our public records request to South Kingstown. But separately we served public records requests on numerous school districts seeking records of communications with RISSA regarding Solas, PDE, and issues related to the burden of APRA requests. While there remain many school districts that owe us documents, what has been produced confirms, in part, my suspicions.
RISSA – Demonizing the Opposition
Communications with public school superintendents are subject to public records requests. The emails produced to us so far pursuant to APRA reveal a panic toward Solas, initiated by South Kingstown Superintendent Linda Savastano, that then was acted upon by Tim Ryan, the lobbyist for RISSA, in seeking to effect a change in the law that would vest the Attorney General’s Office with the ability to resolve disputes as to allegedly burdensome APRA Requests.
Equally or more important, the records reveal a political hostility to “right wing” parents and groups, and PDE is a particular focus. RISSA shared among Superintendents conspiracy theories about PDE.
On Friday, May 28, 2021, at 1:27 p.m., Ryan (RISSA’s lobbyist) sent an email with the subject line “Parents Defending Education,” to, among others, Thomas DiPaola (Executive Director of RISSA), Timothy Duffy (Executive Director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees)(RIASC), and several state legislators and superintendents, as follows;
I spoke with Rep. Tanzi and Linda Savastano this afternoon about a group causing a huge disruption to the South Kingstown Schools. In the past several weeks, an individual associated with Parents Defending Education has filed over 140 APRA requests. The requests center on efforts to address racism, but focus on the Superintendents’ emails, teacher salaries, and programs to address racism.
I plan on contacting the Attorney General’s office to see how abuse of access to public records requests might be addressed.
Below is a link to the organization’s purpose. They have been active in Columbus Ohio and Cambridge MA.
https:// dianeravitch. net/2021 /04/05/maurice-Cunningham-the-rise-of-an-astroturf-rightwing=parentsgrou P/
The link at the end is to a post repeating allegations by alleging PDE is an “astroturf rightwing” group.
Just a little while later that afternoon, on May 28, 2021, at 1:42 p.m., Duffy of RIASC emailed back to Ryan calling PDE a “right wing group” and linking to an appearance by Erika Sanzi of PDE on Tucker Carlson (emphasis added):
They are a right wing group that openly admits that APRA requests are part of their strategy.
Parents Defending Education Erika Sanzi on Fox’s Tucker Carlson
At 1 :25 of the YouTube video, Rl’s own Erika Sanzi discusses the use of APRA.
As the video and PDE’s website make clear, PDE does advocate the use of public records requests as a means of parents obtaining information that schools do not voluntarily provide. But there’s no indication that PDE urges parents to use public records requests as a means of harassment or to overload school systems, or that PDE had anything to do with Solas’s requests at issue.
Here is the referenced appearance by Sanzi of PDE:
Representative Carol Hagan McEntee also was brought into the loop late in the day on May 28 by Sevastano, as were several other legislators on the email list.
May 28, when all this RISSA activity was taking place, also is the day the item about suing Solas was added to the South Kingstown School Committee Agenda for June 2 (in order to comply with the Open Meetings Act). We have not yet received records that might shed light on the interaction, if any, of the potential lawsuit against Solas and the RISSA reach out to legislators and others.
On June 1, 2021, at 3:01 p.m., Ryan sent an email to the group of Superintendents and others attaching a proposed legislative amendment to APRA:
Below is a letter I just sent to the Speaker’s policy director. I have spoken with the AG’s office and Ben.
I’ll keep you up to date.
Below is a communication from the Superintendent of the South Kingstown Schools. She has received over 200 APRA requests in the lats week from a single individual. This individual is associated with a Koch Brothers-funded group called Parents Defending Education. The leader is a Rhode Islander, Erica Stanzi, who recently appeared on the Tucker Carlson show, claiming her group is fighting the indoctrination of children in public schools. One of their stated strategies is to flood districts with APRA requests. Westerly and Barrington received APRA request from the same group today.
I called the AG’s office and was informed there was no provision under current law that identifies excessive requests.
I spoke with Teresa Tanzi who is considering a legislative solution. Below is a possible draft.
It’s not clear what the records request served by PDE on Barrington referenced in the email was about. But it might be the big scoop PDE uncovered through APRA, where two Barrington teachers allegedly gave students an extra 5 points to testify about a legislative bill to ban CRT. If that was what PDE uncovered, it proves the utility of APRA, not that it should be scaled back, and certainly does not reflect abuse.
Teresa Tanzi, mentioned in the email, is a state representative from the South Kingstown area.
Here is the proposed legislative language accompanying the above email:
High Volume Or Multiple Requests For Access To Documents
In the event any request or series of requests for public documents under this statute to a single recipient is considered to be overly burdensome, that the recipient may request that the Attorney General intervene to form a reasonable compliance plan.
Such request must be made within ten business days after receiving the request. The Attorney General shall consider all such requests, determine if compliance within the terms of the statute are unduly burdensome to the recipient, and upon such finding shall develop a compliance plan. The Attorney General is authorized to waive any timelines in this statute in its compliance plan.
The Attorney General shall issue regulations effectuating this section on or before _________
On Wednesday, June 2, at 1:37 p.m., with the School Committee hearing scheduled for that evening, Ryan emailed numerous superintendents and others about the legislative efforts (emphasis added):
I’ve been working hard on the APRA request from the Parents Defending Education Group:
• I’ve been in touch with Linda about tonight’s SK School Committee meeting and the media
• I spoke with Steve Brown of the ACLU and he’s open to amending the law to deal with excessive APRA requests
• I forwarded the conversation with the ACLU to the Speaker’s Office
• Tim Duffy and I are in touch with our union friends.
An email request to Brown of the local ACLU seeking information on whether he is “open” to this proposal, and its current status, has not yet been responded to as of this writing. [UPDATE 6/21/2021 7:30 pm – See Brown response at bottom of post]
The warnings about PDE had an impact, with one superintendent responding to Ryan on June 2, 2021 at 8:02 p.m.:
Thanks for this information, Tim.
Poor Linda can’t catch a break.
On June 3, after the South Kingstown School Committee voted not to sue Solas, at 3:21 p.m. Ryan emailed numerous superintendents and others with additional information about PDE [text unrelated to PDE or Solas or APRA removed by us]
After talking to Linda, I think we need to educate our members and their school committees on Parents Defending Education group. I’m trying to be cautious so we don’t get sued so I’m sending the links to what others have said.
Below is for the memo tomorrow:
The session continues as final decisions are being made on a number of education-related bills.
3. The excessive number of APRA request that Linda Savastano is dealing with in SK has revealed a
huge failing in existing law. I’m working for a legislative solution and conferring with the ACLU, who
at this point are being reasonable.
The attachment appears to be a memo about PDE, as follows (emphasis added)
It’s never been harder to be a Superintendent and I am so proud to work with such a great group of dedicated and courageous professionals. There are recent developments we need to watch and provide support for one another.
We all know many of our citizens live in a separate news reality with Fox, Newsmax and their ilk. Radicalized followers of this type of media have been on social media throughout the year and we might not realize how nasty it’s become. Mark and Alicia have been called horrible things and vilified by a home-grown group in Westerly; Gina has been dealing with a similar situation in Chariho; a director of Parents Defending Education filed an APRA request in Barrington and now Linda is facing death threats in South Kingstown.
South Kingstown has been inundated with APRA requests (over 240). I’m working with our friends in the Legislature and have communicated with Common Cause and the ACLU to look for solutions. We need to be aware of common links. See the links below and reach out to support one another.
com m ittee-may-sue-to-stopme/?
Parents Defending Education Erika Sanzi on Fox’s Tucker Carlson
At 1:25 of the YouTube video, Rl’s own Erika Sanzi discusses the use of APRA.
The video link in the memo is to the same Tucker Carlson appearance by Erika Sanzi of PDE referenced earlier. Ryan has not yet responded to an email seeking to identify the author of the memo attachment, or whether the legislative efforts are ongoing.
The public records we have obtained so far shed important light on what is happening, but there is more to be learned. And a lot more records to be obtained.
What is clear is that RISSA created a fear of national “astroturf” groups, including allegedly PDE, not only behind Solas, but also planning to bury school districts across the state in APRA requests. In fact, based on what is revealed in the documents, there was only one person (Solas) allegedly filing a large number of public record requests. But one person, who the school district admits it did not handle well, would not create momentum for legislative change.
National Effort To Demonize Parents and Groups
The South Kingstown School Committee has placed on the agenda for June 22, an entry that appears to relate to Solas, so it’s possible the Committee will take another vote on whether to sue Solas.
Regardless, this no longer is only about Solas. It’s about how politics, and dislike of “right wing” parents and groups, has entered into the conversation among school superintendents, legislators, and others. Conservatives frequently claim the educational bureaucracy is hostile to them, and these documents seem to reflect that.
This demonization cannot be viewed in isolation. There is an attempt in the media to marginalize parents concerned about CRT with absurd claims like that they don’t want children told about slavery.
We have documented this nationwide disinformation pushback in these two posts:
- Media Panics Over Mounting Opposition to Critical Race Theory
- Panicked Media Escalates Disinformation War Against Critical Race Theory Opponents
The claim that parental concern is “astroturfed” or the result of manipulation by “Koch” backed entities is familiar. It’s the exact same tactic used over a decade ago against the Tea Party groups that sprung up spontaneously around the country in 2009-2010. Then, as now, it’s led by groups like Media Matters and mainstream media as a way of marginalizing real concerns:
We have seen this movie before.
Randy Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, is promoting similar attacks on parents concerned about CRT that RISSA and others are asserting in Rhode Island:
One of the problems parents experience in finding out what his happening is that CRT is not taught in elementary school as a distinct topic, rather teaching takes place “in” a CRT construct, as Andrew Sullivan astutely notes. The disgust many parents experience is real, not manufactured, and not limited to “conservatives” (or Fox News and Newsmax ilk):
And no, 6-year-olds are not being taught Derrick Bell — or forced to read Judith Butler, or God help them, Kimberlé Crenshaw. Of course they aren’t — and I don’t know anyone who says they are.
But they are being taught popularized terms, new words, and a whole new epistemology that is directly downstream of academic critical theory. Ibram X. Kendi even has an AntiRacist Baby Picture Book so you can indoctrinate your child into the evil of whiteness as soon as she or he can gurgle. It’s a little hard to argue that CRT is not interested in indoctrinating kids when its chief proponent in the US has a kiddy book on the market.
The goal of education of children this young is to cement the notion at the most formative age that America is at its core an oppressive racist system uniquely designed to exploit, harm, abuse, and even kill the non-white. This can be conveyed in easy terms, by training kids to see themselves first and foremost as racial avatars, and by inculcating in them a sense of their destiny as members of the oppressed or oppressor classes in the zero-sum struggle for power that is American society in 2021….
I don’t know what planet you have to be on to be shocked that when a child reports this kind of thing back to her parents, the parents want to know what on earth is going on. This is not something only “ultra-conservative” activists would react to ….
This is not teaching about critical race theory; it is teaching in critical race theory. And it is compulsory and often hidden from parents….
And what the rest of us should do is support them, come to the aid of fired teachers, shaken students, bullied educators, and intimidated mothers and fathers. And never, ever concede the idea that opposing critical race theory is racist. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Parents opposing the obsessive racialization of their children’s education don’t have law firms on retainer, 8-figure budgets, lobbyists, “union friends,” leglistators on speed dial, public relations firms, or friendly local media. What they have is a collective feeling that education has gone very wrong, that the best interests of the children and the nation are not being served, and that much takes place in secret.
Information and transparency are the true battlefields. Public records requests level the playing field just a little bit for parents, which is why the attacks on public records requests are so intense.
The claim of astroturf is an attempt to cut off parents from support, to isolate them, to make them afraid to talk to groups like Parents Defending Education lest they be smeared as connected to a “national racist group.”
We’ll continue to keep you informed as we learn more.
UPDATE 6/21/2021 7:30 p.m.
Steve Brown of Rhode Island ACLU has responded as follows:
In talking to a few people about this issue, I have indicated that we do not unequivocally object to an amendment to APRA, if appropriately defined and limited, that would address abusive requests under the law. However, we have expressed our opposition to the only version of an amendment I have seen, and we would not support a bill that simply gave the Attorney General blanket authority to make such a determination.
CRT Battlefront: Rhode Island School Superintendents’ Plan To Limit Public Records Requests Runs Into Possible ACLU RoadblockDONATE
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