NORTH SMITHFIELD – A group of more than 150 residents has signed a petition calling for the resignation of a North Smithfield School Committee member who works as a research specialist for the Rhode Island Department of Education.
In a letter presented to members of the committee at their meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 14, the group called on Margaret “Peg” Votta to step down from the board, saying she has several conflicts of interest. Pointing to a survey given to students at the middle school last month, the letter states that Votta, “has been promoting RIDE’s surveys on several instances.”
The Rhode Island Middle School Youth Risk Behavior Survey drew complaints from parents due to questions covering sensitive subject matter such as violence and sexuality. Parents had the chance to “opt out,” of participation via a consent form sent home with students.
But some parents said that they never received the forms, and have argued that participation should have required express signed permission. And despite a district policy that requires the School Committee to approve all surveys, officials admitted that they failed to present the recent questionnaire to the board.
The letter, dated November 29, states that, “it has been discovered,” that Votta works as a research specialist for SurveyWorks for RIDE. A timeline pointing to a School Committee meeting from January of 2017 states, “this is the only time recorded Committee member Peg Votta has publicly disclosed her role at RIDE.”
Votta, who serves as secretary for the board, was first elected for a four year term in 2016, coming in second out of six candidates that year. She had two children in the North Smithfield school system at the time, who have since graduated.
Votta discussed her role as a research specialist for RIDE in several press releases from her campaign that year.
She ran unopposed in her 2020 reelection bid for a term set to expire in 2024.
A source who shared the letter requesting her resignation with NRI NOW stated that the document had been hand signed by more than 150 residents, but did not share the signature page.
School Committee Chairman James Lombardi said he had not received the letter as of Tuesday afternoon.
“In addition, we believe that Mrs. Votta’s non-recusal of the school wide mask mandate was also a direct conflict of her knowledge of RIDE’s demand to not grant school reopening plans if a mask mandate was not passed,” the document notes. “It is our belief that North Smithfield School Committee member Peg Votta did not disclose or recuse herself from the above-mentioned items and as a result, this warrants itself to be an ethics violation by non-disclosure.”
The letter states that if Votta does not resign, the signatures shall serve as recall signatures.
North Smithfield’s recall process, laid out in the Town Charter, calls for a specific form, obtained from the Town Clerk, to be used in a petition for recall. The document must be signed by 30 percent of the number of votes cast in the prior election, and be certified in order to trigger a recall election.
Around 7,000 North Smithfield residents cast a vote during the 2020 election cycle, which indicates that recall proponents would need roughly 2,100 signatures to trigger the process.
Several dozen residents attended the meeting Tuesday night, and some spoke in favor of the resignation, with one parent whose son reportedly took the survey providing copies of the document to committee members.
“How do you get to extend the wishes and needs of your employer through your role on the School Committee?” asked Deborah Gianfrancesco, calling Votta an, “agent of the state acting in a dual capacity.”
Gianfrancesco asked those in attendance to raise their hand if they thought Votta’s job presented a conflict and a large majority put a hand up.
The Rhode Island Ethics Commission is the authority on potential ethics violations in the state, and those who believe an infraction has been committed traditionally submit a complaint, and receive a ruling on the issue. Votta said that the commission has ruled more than once that working for RIDE is not a conflict with serving on a school board. She also pointed out that the recent middle school survey was administered by the Rhode Island Department of Health, not RIDE.
Resident Michael Clifford discussed the use of the “negative consent,” or an opt out form for the survey.
“This is the lazy man’s permission slip as far as I’m concerned,” Clifford said, pointing to one question about suicide. “If you think taking this survey isn’t going to trigger some type of emotions in that child you’re very naive. The least you can do is inform the parents.”
Lombardi struggled to maintain order at the meeting as shouts of agreement, demands and words like, “coward,” interrupted various speakers.
Committee Vice Chairperson Jean Meo defended Votta, noting that the board secretary didn’t hide her position at RIDE, but rather campaigned on it.
“I think that we benefit from having her as part of our school department team,” Meo said. “Her experience and knowledge are assets to the school department.”
“I think that national politics need to be kept out of town government,” Meo added. “I really would like to be able to concentrate on what we were elected to do. That’s why I’m here, is to do what I think is best for the children.”
The board took no action on the claims against Votta, but members did take steps to amend district policy on surveys.
The amendment, unanimously passed in a first reading Tuesday, states that, “North Smithfield Public Schools will notify the parents of students who are scheduled to participate in surveys that are framed to ask student personal (non academic) questions about themselves and/or their families and provide parents information about the survey, its content and its use, and the choice to opt in/out, as applicable.”
Editor’s note: This article has been updated from the original version to add dialog from Tuesday’s meeting. Additionally, an original version of this story cited an old version of the town charter and recall process. The procedure was amended in 2017 to lower the number of signatures required. We apologize for the miscalculation.