University of Rhode Island freshman Kevin Shepherd joined the fight to keep Gorton Junior High School open and now that that will happen for at least another year, he hasn’t stopped digging.
The Warwick native has put in a lofty request to the school department for the salaries of Superintendent Richard D’Agostino, Director of Human Resources Rosemary Healey and other individuals earning more than $65,000.
Shepherd, who was a student at Gorton and graduated from Warwick Veterans Memorial High School, is also asking for details on the salaries of individuals holding more than one position and wants to obtain former supertintendent Dr. Peter Horoschak’s mutual termination agreement.
Since citizens have the right to ask for this form of information through the access to public records act, Shepherd thought nothing of asking for the information, submitting a formal request to Healey following the May 7 hearing on Gorton.
“With schools closing down, they are talking about wasteful spending,” said Shepherd. “I personally feel no consolidation should be occurring at the school level.”
Shepherd says it was D’Agostino’s claim that one could drive from the end of Oakland Beach to Winman Junior High School in nine to 10 minutes that set him off.
“That is physically impossible. They are acting like what they’re saying is the way it is going to go and no one is going to check them. That’s just not true,” said Shepherd.
Then, on May 10, Shepherd received a letter from Healey saying that they would fill his request, but he would need to pay $150 first.
The letter explains that the $150 covers 10 hours of staff time to receive documents (although, there is no charge for the first hour) and the cost of copying 100 pages at 15 cents a copy.
When reached for comment on the issue, Healey said the $150 price tag had nothing to do with discouraging Shepherd from asking for the information; the cost truly reflects the amount of time it will take to fill his request.
According to Healey, although Shepherd said at the meeting that he is looking for the salaries of administrators, the wording of his request includes job descriptions, total annual salary, hourly wages, contracted payments, bonuses and pension agreements for “any individuals [employed by Warwick Public Schools] earning over $65,000 annually and/or holding more than one position (acting, elected, appointed or otherwise), and/or any individual previously employed by the WPS who solely, or by association with a third party or business contractor, provides any service with the reasonable expectation of compensation relevant to the WPS, back to the year 2005.”
Healey says that requires staff members to physically pull records for the past eight years on close to 950 people.
She estimates the total number of documents to satisfy Shepherd’s written request is between 6,000 and 10,000.
“To be honest, the $150 was probably a gross underestimate,” said Healey, adding that should the cost go up, Shepherd would need to pay.
“He may think he only asked for our administrators, but many of our teachers make more than $65,000,” said Healey, adding that teachers who coach teams, tutor and perform other duties would also need to be included, and those records are kept in different offices.
Shepherd was informed of this in a letter he received from Healey dated May 16. The letter acknowledged his payment of $150, which he hand delivered at the May 14 school committee meeting, and informed Shepherd that he could revise his request to potentially lower the cost.
Shepherd isn’t backing down.
“I guess [teachers] get roped in,” said Shepherd, adding that he has anonymous donors helping him cover any costs. “I think she wants to keep the information from me.”
Healey said the cost has no relation to trying to keep the information quiet since it is public record. She says they get requests for payroll details often, and anytime records need to physically be pulled from files, there is a charge.
“I have to pull staff off regular duties to fill these requests,” said Healey. “We can’t afford to not charge for this service.”
Healey says that if Shepherd would like to revise his request to a smaller group of individuals such as just administrators or asking for just this year, the cost could dramatically change.
“That could significantly reduce or even eliminate the cost,” said Healey.
She explained that salaries for the past year are readily accessible and would take no time at all to get together for those who request it, however, the system does not maintain records for past years or former employees. Those need to be found in archives.
“The current financial system only contains current employees,” said Healey.
When he was told his request would take 10 hours to fill, Shepherd went to employees throughout Warwick Public Schools, who wish to remain anonymous, that have been supporting his endeavors. Shepherd says they told him a request of that nature should only take two hours.
“I think this is an attempt to strong arm me,” said Shepherd.
Healey also says Shepherd may not find the information he thinks is there.
In his request, he is looking for salary information for Superintendent D’Agostino and Healey herself.
“My speculation is that they are pulling multiple salaries,” said Shepherd. “I can’t prove it until I get the records.”
Healey says that is not the case.
“Administrators do not receive extra earnings for additional positions; extra earning opportunities are usually only for teachers,” said Healey.
Shepherd doesn’t believe that administrators who hold multiple positions are not getting paid for them. He has done his own research online, looking into the budget. He says since every position has a salary, where else is that money going if not to the administrators doing the job.
“I’m not going to point fingers; I’m not going to go after anyone,” said Shepherd. “I am going to highlight interesting facts in the documents and send it to the media.”
According to the access to public records act, Healey has 10 days to fill Shepherd’s request, after which she could request an additional 20. Healey says in addition to the volume of Shepherd’s request, it is the busiest time of the year for the department as schools prepare to close for the summer.
“That’s going to be a challenge,” said Healey, “but we’ll do our best.”
As Shepherd waits to receive the information, he is looking into pressing charges through the Attorney General’s office regarding the costs. He has contacted the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union for information and to see if he has a case. He is still waiting to hear back.
“I want reimbursement for the charges, and if theses records prove what I think they will prove, there are huge fines to pay. I am sure the Attorney General will pursue that,” said Shepherd.
Support from the community has only made Shepherd more determined. He has a petition with close to 100 signatures he collected from his neighborhood to send to the Attorney General in the hope of being reimbursed and it includes 50 individuals who could show up in the documents he is requesting.
Just finishing up his first year of college, Shepherd says he will take all of the information provided to him, no matter how many pages, and start digging through it.
“If I have to give up a few weeks of my time, so what,” said Shepherd. “If I have to be the face of it, that’s fine.”
Shepherd also plans to put in a follow-up request for the names of all the individuals in the school department who needed to pull the documents and any individuals who had the documents before he received them. The request will also ask for a check register. Shepherd is filing this request at the suggestion of some of his supporters.