PROVIDENCE — A vacancy on a rural school committee board is igniting a legal battle that is headed to the Rhode Island Supreme Court and that reflects a national ideological battle over public education.
The controversy stems from the decision by Gary Liguori, a Richmond Democrat, to step down from the Chariho School Committee to take a job in Florida. Chariho is a regional school district that includes three small towns in southern Rhode Island — Charlestown, Richmond, and Hopkinton.
On Thursday, the Richmond Town Council voted to replace Liguori with Republican Clay Johnson, chair of the conservative Gaspee Project and a supporter of Parents United, which opposes “efforts to teach our K-12 students any divisive race-based or gender-based theory and any inappropriate and explicit sexual content.”
Johnson’s appointment would leave the 12-member regional school committee split evenly between conservatives and liberals, observers say.
But on Monday, a lawyer filed a petition asking the state Supreme Court to remove Johnson and replace him with Jessica Marie Purcell, a Democrat who had received the next-highest number of votes in November’s school committee election.
And on Tuesday, a lawyer for Johnson filed an emergency petition asking the Supreme Court to declare that Johnson “was validly appointed by the Richmond Town Council to the Chariho School Committee and is the rightful holder of that office.”
The legal arguments revolve around the Chariho Act, which calls for town councils to fill vacancies on the regional school committee, and the Richmond Home Rule Charter, which specifies that the Richmond Town Council fill vacancies by appointing the school committee candidate with the next-highest number of votes in the last election.
“They didn’t follow the Richmond Home Rule Charter,” Purcell said in an interview. “They violated my rights and disenfranchised the voters of Richmond. They said ‘We don’t respect the results of this election.’”
She noted she narrowly lost November’s election, finishing third in a race for two school committee seats. She received 1,469 votes, just 27 votes behind the second-place candidate, a Republican.
Johnson previously served on the Chariho School Committee but he did not run in 2022.
On Tuesday, Johnson responded to Purcell’s petition, saying, “Ms. Purcell was the losing candidate on November 8. She was the losing candidate for the appointment. I’m sure she is fighting this hard because she knows the stakes involved.”
Asked what his appointment will mean for the district’s education policy, Johnson said, “As one vote on the school committee, my concerns could be politely ignored. With more members concerned about the direction of the curriculum, there will be a real debate.” He said, “A school system should not be a replacement for a family, and school values should not displace family values.”
The Chariho School Committee was scheduled to meet Tuesday night to discuss whether to file a petition asking the Supreme Court to install Purcell. But Purcell’s lawyer, Jeff Levy, said only the attorney general or the person seeking an office has standing to file such a petition, and he filed that petition late Monday.
The petition is bound to face opposition from those who argue that the Chariho Act — the 1958 law which created the regional school district — takes precedence over the Richmond Home Rule Charter.
“Normally, when there is a potential or actual conflict, the state law would take precedence over the local law because the cities and towns are really creatures of the state,” Robert G. Flanders Jr., a former state Supreme Court justice and board member of the conservative Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity, said in an interview.
Flanders, who has not been hired but was contacted by a Richmond Town Council member about the matter, said the Chariho School Committee is “ironically” arguing that local law should prevail over the state law creating the regional school district. “In my view, that is really disingenuous,” he said, “because the local law takes away all discretion and choice from the town council by mandating they pick one person.”
The importance of the matter goes beyond the borders of Richmond, Flanders said. “So it would seem the provisions in the regional school district act are likely to prevail, given the statewide concern about how regional school committees fill vacancies.”
Johnson’s attorney, Joseph S. Larisa Jr., who served as chief of staff to Republican Governor Lincoln Almond, said the town council was free to appoint anyone it wanted to the vacancy.
“Henry Ford once said about the Model T that a customer could have it ‘painted any color he wants as long as it is black,’” Larisa wrote. “The act’s restriction on the council’s ability to fill a vacancy to a single person is akin Ford’s restriction of ‘any color’ to just one. In both cases, the promised choice is purely illusory.”
In a Jan. 10 memo, Richmond town solicitor Karen R. Ellsworth told the town council that it was not required to fill the school committee vacancy with the candidate who received the next-greatest number of votes in the Nov. 8 election.
But Levy disagreed in Purcell’s petition to the Supreme Court, arguing that the Richmond Town Council had violated the town charter by appointing Johnson. He said the Chariho Act and the Home Rule Charter do not conflict and that town charter is simply more specific about how to fill school committee vacancies.
“Whenever possible, statutes should be interpreted so that they are consistent rather than conflicting,” Levy wrote. “The Chariho Act and the charter, read together, require the Town Council to appoint Purcell to serve the remainder of Liguori’s term on the school committee.”
Even if the two laws are viewed as clashing, the Richmond Home Rule Charter would prevail because it was ratified by the General Assembly in 2009 while the Chariho Act dates back 65 years, Levy wrote. The petition asks the high court to “decree that Johnson is not a member of the School Committee and that Purcell is the rightful holder of the seat vacated by Liguori.”
Jon M. Anderson, attorney for the Chariho Regional School District, agreed that there is no conflict between the Chariho Act and the Richmond Home Rule Charter when it comes to filling school committee vacancies. And he said the Town Council cannot ignore the legal principle that “the specific controls the general.”
“Consequently, the council need only follow the plain language of the Chariho Act and the Richmond Home Rule Charter and appoint the next highest vote getter,” he wrote to the Richmond Town Council.
Anderson told the Richmond Town Council that it was free to disagree with his analysis.
“I respectfully give notice, however, that I will advise the Chariho School Committee not to recognize any person putatively appointed to the Chariho School Committee in violation of both the Richmond Home Rule Charter and the Chariho Act because both can be read together,” he wrote.
Anderson said he had no choice but to take that stance because “otherwise every decision of the Chariho School Committee would be subject to challenge on the grounds that the Chariho School Committee was improperly constituted and, thus, every decision of the Chariho School Committee would be void.”
Flanders said it could take weeks or even months before the Supreme Court rules on Purcell’s petition, so in the meantime he argued that Johnson should be allowed to serve on the school committee. “The status quo is he has been appointed by the Richmond Town Council,” he said. “And until the Supreme Court weighs in on the merits, he should be entitled to serve as a committee member.”
Larisa said Johnson was able to take his seat on the school committee Tuesday night and the meeting proceeded.
The story has been updated with information about the emergency petition filed by Clay Johnson’s lawyer.