PROVIDENCE – Three of Gov. Lincoln Chafee’s nominees to the Board of Regents, including chairman-designate George Caruolo, won approval from the Senate Education Committee on split votes Tuesday.
After enduring extensive grilling from committee members on his opinion of Commissioner Deborah Gist and several of the reforms she has championed, on his potential conflict of interest in simultaneously being regents chairman and a lobbyist for the Twin River gambling casino and not losing the $75 million in federal Race to the Top funds Rhode Island was awarded last year.
Caruolo won the committee’s recommendation on a 6-2 vote with Lincoln Sen. Edward O’Neill and Coventry Rep. Glenford Shibley casting the no votes.
Two other nominees, Mathies Santos and Carolina Baque Bernal, won easier passage, each on 6-1 votes with one abstention. In both cases Shibley voted no and O’Neill abstained. A fourth nominee, former URI President Robert Carothers was out of town and his hearing was postponed.
Caruolo, an attorney, was unapologetic about his $5,000 a month work as a Twin River lobbyist.
“I don’t see how that would be a conflict,” Caruolo said when asked about the lobbying by O’Neill. “How that is a conflict will need to be explained to me.”
“Given the fact that I have recently put two children through college, very expensive colleges, and I have two children in college as sophomores, very expensive colleges, I am paying cash for them with no assistance, I will not be giving up” the lobbying work, Caruolo said.
He pointed out that the current chairman, Robert Flanders, was a partner in a law firm in which another partner worked for Twin River. “Do you understand that?” he asked O’Neill. When the senator nodded, Caruolo said, “then what’s the difference?”
Later in the hearing, Flanders spoke on Caruolo’s behalf, saying that in a state the size of Rhode Island, “conflicts of interest are inevitable.” He said it is up to an official to identify the conflict and absent him or herself from the discussion and vote on that particular subject. He said nothing came before the regents concerning Twin River while he was chairman, but if it had, he would have recused himself.
“There is no embarrassment in it,” Flanders said.
O’Neill told Caruolo he will be representing the entire population of Rhode Island school children and therefore “you have to be like Caesar’s wife,” beyond reproach. “You are supposed to be above and independent of politics.
Asked after the hearing why he voted no on Caruolo, O’Neill told The Times, “If you are lobbying for someone, you are out there working solely for them.” He said he thought Caruolo should “step aside. There are other people. There is a big pool out there. I thought there should have been more and perhaps better candidates.
He said the Senate is going to be voting on numerous issues such as the budget, the fair funding formula for schools, “there are so many votes, so many issues that impact the Senate and the House, he’ll be touching us with both hands. I said you are either a predator or a beast of burden; he wants to be both.
Questions about the Race to the Top (RTTT) funding was raised by William Fischer, a lobbyist for Democrats for Education Reform, a group that backs, among other reforms, charter schools. Fischer said Chafee’s remarks about the state taking a “thoughtful pause” in the development of such schools “is having a ripple effect” all the way to Washington DC about “whether or not we are going to follow through on the promises we made” in the RTTT application.
Fischer said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said the department would take back funding from states if they don’t comply with the programs they laid out in their applications.
On the Race to the Top money, Caruolo told the panel, “To me, the great challenge is not so much retaining those funds because I believe we will, the great challenge is to spend them in such a way that we attain maximum benefit from them. If we can put together best practices for evaluating teacher effectiveness. If we can put together state of the art training, even if it is remedial training to turn a mediocre teacher into a good teacher, a good teacher into a great teacher, I think that fits in entirely with Deborah Gist’s philosophy of how to reach the hardest students, for whatever reason. Great teachers make a difference and that is what we have the Race to the Top money for.
Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, who sat through the entire three hours of meeting that was interrupted for the Senate floor session said she and other state leaders have been “unequivocal” in their support for the state’s RTTT effort.
Questioned about Gist and the Chafee administration’s commitment to keeping her as commissioner, Caruolo said, “make no mistake about it, she has come to Rhode Island with determination and zeal. She has utilized her intelligence and talent to being about discussion on difficult aspects of this business we call education. She’s brought about change. Some of the change has been directly in the areas that are difficult and she is in the process of fostering more change.
“Her work has been crucial,” Caruolo said, “in focusing the attention of this state, of focusing the attention of the federal government on this state, and to fostering a climate where reform of our schools has become a top priority of different levels of government, not just state government. She has a vital role to play going forward.”