Richmond resident Jessica Purcell had largely stayed away from the ins and outs of the Chariho Regional School District, which serves the towns of Charlestown, Richmond, and Hopkinton. But in March 2021, with her older son in first grade and her younger son approaching elementary school age, she decided to get involved.

Purcell started following district school committee meetings online and hearing what parents, teachers, and taxpayers had to say about the direction of their schools.

The Chariho School District has long had a strong reputation. The high school is ranked in the top 10 statewide by U.S. News & World Report, three of the four elementary schools are as well, and the school system is well-regarded among parents in and out of the district for its career and technical programs and Advanced Placement offerings.

But many comments Purcell heard from conservative residents didn’t reflect that success. Instead, they reflected outrage over students forced to wear masks for protection against COVID-19 despite opposition from their parents; the alleged creep of controversial materials on race, gender, and sexuality into curriculum; and disagreements over who has a say in what books belong in school libraries.

Purcell says much of the criticism was against an anti-racism task force started in the wake of police violence against Black Americans in 2020.

“I wanted to know why, what the possible motive was for these concerns?” Purcell said in a recent interview. “And I also feel like a lot of the information being shared is actually unsubstantiated claims. In our school, I haven't seen or heard any specific instances that have alarmed me.”

‘This was a part of a political agenda’

Purcell describes herself as a firm believer in public schools. She was educated in Newport’s school system and at a state university, and her mother worked as a public school custodian. So in 2022, she decided to run for a seat on the Chariho School Committee. She says her motivation wasn’t to push back against the “cultural concerns” being raised by conservative residents. Instead, she says, she wanted to discuss challenges Chariho faces with an open mind and find solutions. 

“I'm a partner to the schools already,” she said. “That's what I do every day when I send my kids to school. I need the school so that I can work, so that my husband can work, so that our children can be educated and all the students in the school can be educated.”

She added, “But my greatest concern is that we keep it focused on specifics and the challenges that Chariho faces, the issues that are happening, what the teachers are discussing and what they need.”

In the end, Purcell finished 27 votes behind the second place finisher, just missing one of the two open seats. Then, a few months later, a school committee member from Richmond resigned from his seat. Under Richmond’s home rule charter, the unelected candidate with the most votes — in this case Purcell, who is a Democrat — is appointed to fill the vacancy. 

But three Republican Richmond Town Council members, who hold a majority on the five person council, voted instead to appoint a resident who wasn’t on the November ballot. Their appointee, Clay Johnson, is a conservative activist known statewide as chair of The Gaspee Project, a group that advocates far-right political ideas and promoted the January 6th rally that led to the attack on the U.S. Capitol.

The appointment has prompted public outcry from residents who support Purcell and led her to file a lawsuit against the town, arguing Johnson’s appointment should be undone and she should be seated on the school committee. 

“They're taking away the voices of the voters in Richmond,” Purcell said of the council members. “This isn't just about me; it's about recognizing the position I'm in to fight back against officials who are deciding the rules don't apply to them.” 

The central question in the case is whether the state law governing the school district, the Chariho Act, gives the town council discretion to pick an appointee who’s not the next top vote-getter. 

The councilors who selected Clay Johnson say the town charter can’t supersede state law to deny them a choice in their appointment. Jessica Purcell’s attorney, Jeff Levy, says the councilor’s argument is incorrect, because the state law and town charter are in harmony: the former establishes who makes the appointment, the latter says who they should appoint.

“Every elected official serves at the pleasure of the voters and is working for the voters who elected them,” Levy said. “I think it's important for the council to understand that they don't have a right to discretion if the voters of Richmond choose to take the discretion away from them...They have to respect that.”

The case has galvanized supporters of Purcell and Johnson alike, because it’s about more than a narrow legal disagreement over how a school committee vacancy gets filled. It points to the influence of a conservative movement that’s increasingly focused its energies on school policy in recent years, at the local level in South County and nationally, blending rhetoric about divisive cultural issues with tough talk on government spending. 

In Chariho, important decisions about the future of the school district are also at stake. Chariho is in the process of setting its budget for the coming fiscal year, and the district’s teachers union is working under an expired contract that needs to be renegotiated. Opinions on both of these issues are divided.

“I think this was a part of a political agenda. I think that the councilors, the Republican, conservative councilors saw an opportunity,” Levy said. “They took advantage of that, and I think they knew that they were doing something that was contrary to law, but they thought they'd take a chance and grab some power while they could.”

Appointee with polarizing background

When contacted by The Public’s Radio, Clay Johnson did not agree to an interview and instead asked that questions be emailed to him. He defended his appointment to the school committee, saying it “brings much needed balance to the committee.” 

Johnson referred to the case brought by Purcell as “another sign of the arrogance of the extreme left that they feel they are owed positions of power. It is disappointing that they force the continued expenditure of public resources on vanity projects.”

Johnson has prior experience as a Chariho School Committee member, but some residents are concerned about his role chairing The Gaspee Project. 

The group has identified Clay Johnson as one of its top two named donors to the organization and said all other contributors give at a level below one-thousand dollars. The Gaspee Project has put its resources to use advocating conservative causes in Rhode Island. Last year, it paid for a mailer sent to Richmond residents before the election that accused elected officials of promoting “a divisive and racist agenda.” 

“An agenda that seeks to either shame you or victimize you depending on the color of your skin,” Johnson wrote in the letter. “An effort to ‘decenter whiteness.’ Can you imagine something more racist? This needs to stop!”

Johnson encouraged recipients of the letter to vote for Richmond candidates who support “The Parents United Pledge,” defined on the #ParentsUnitedRI website as a commitment to “oppose all efforts to teach our K-12 students any divisive race-based or gender-based theory and any inappropriate and explicit sexual content.”

In the letter, Johnson specifically named Michael Colasante, Helen Sheehan, and Mark Trimmer — the town councilors who would later appoint him to the school committee — as people deserving of voters’ support.

Colasante did not respond to interview requests from The Public’s Radio. 

In an interview, Sheehan said she appointed Johnson because of his experience with budget analysis. She said she also shares the ideological concerns raised in Johnson’s letter to residents and feels “more secure that he will protect the children overall than someone with a more liberal ideology.”

“All of the schools are being moved in this direction that, if you're white, you're bad. If you're Black, then you're a poor little oppressed thing,” Sheehan said. “And I don't support an agenda that says, if a child is white, that they are an oppressor. I don't like that. I don't think it's proper. I also do not like children being given sexual materials, especially in grades one through three.”

When asked if young children in the Chariho School District are being given explicit material, Sheehan said “it’s more implicit” content that’s “worked into some of the materials.” She said she also took issue with a “fairly biased” summer reading list for high school students she saw about a year ago but that she could not remember specific book titles that concerned her.

“They were about race and gender,” Sheehan said.

Trimmer, the town council president, said his vote was not motivated by politics or anything personal he has against Jessica Purcell, and he emphasized that Clay Johnson’s mailer did not constitute direct financial support for his campaign. 

Trimmer said he has concerns about potential increases in the Chariho budget, and he doesn’t want to raise taxes in Richmond to pay for additional costs. He says the school district should take a closer look at employee compensation to save money, and he sees Clay Johnson as an appointee who can be relied on to make prudent financial decisions.

“In my mind, it was all about experience and fiscal conservatism,” Trimmer said. “I really haven't looked at the budget. But the salaries and the benefits just need to be in line with the rest of the world.”

‘The ultimate goal is to destroy public education’

Jessica Purcell says comments being made by council members reveal the true motivation behind their decision to appoint Clay Johnson as well as the agenda that’s propelled conservative rhetoric on controversies like “critical race theory.” In her mind, it’s about capitalizing on manufactured outrage to advance efforts to cut school funding.

“It provides an opportunity for those organized enough, and with enough funding, to take advantage of feelings, and to turn feelings into action that result in cutting school budgets, cutting the school budget of a regional school district, a successful one,” Purcell said. “And I fear that it could turn our successful school district into a struggling one. And that's hard to come back from, and I don't want to see that happen.”

Others say those concerns are justified. Maurice Cunningham, a retired UMass Boston professor who’s written about conservative advocacy groups and school privatization, sees the Chariho case as part of a broader, ongoing national movement – part of what he calls “white backlash politics” meant to create a “poisonous atmosphere” that disrupts school systems. Ultimately, Cunningham says, the rhetoric is spread top-down by groups at the national level that are funded by people who want to erode trust in public schools.

“Unfortunately, in this country, we have a long history of being able to activate people on race, and so that's what's happened with these newer groups,” Cunningham said. “The ultimate goal is to destroy public education, destroy teachers unions, and privatize education. That's what they're about.”

The Chariho matter is expected to be argued before the state Supreme Court in April. Both sides say they will accept the court’s decision.

Alex Nunes can be reached at