PAWTUCKET — In his many thanks to colleagues and friends at his last Pawtucket School Committee meeting, outgoing chairman Jim Chellel gave a special recognition to the staff of Shea High School who were there from 1990 to 1994.
That's because Chellel, who graduated in 1994, credits his teachers, baseball coaches, and others at the school who helped him overcome a learning disability with being a key example of the benefits of public education and why taxpayers should not begrudge their financial support.
“When I entered Shea as a freshman, I could barely spell the name of the street that I lived on — Prentice Street -- -and I left as senior class president,” noted Chellel, proudly.
Chellel recalled that during the first eight years of his education, which were spent at a local Catholic school, his teachers failed to diagnose the difficulties he was having with reading and math. However, he said that soon after arriving at Shea, he was tested and put on a remedial plan of action that successfully addressed his learning issues and allowed him to gain some much-needed confidence.
The Pawtucket native now works as a dispatcher for the state's 911 emergency system, and was recently recognized for his role in helping save a woman's life. “I am a prime example of public education working,” said Chellel, who added that he gets dismayed at the constant criticism of tax dollars going toward that purpose.
Chellel, who has served on the School Committee for the past six years and the last two as chairman, said he decided to “speak from the heart” about his own school days in an effort to highlight the role teachers and school personnel play in shaping a child's future.
Chellel said the same kind of personal attention was given to his young daughter last year by the former principal Jacqueline Ash and the teachers of the Nathanael Greene Elementary School. He noted that the premature birth of his son and related medical issues caused a great deal of worry and stress in the household, and that school was the only bright spot for his daughter during that difficult time.
“My daughter always loved going to school and the administrators and staff reached out to her — and not just because she was my daughter. They would do that for anyone's daughter,” said Chellel. “And there are a lot of kids who are going through a lot worse at home than what my daughter was. These are the intangibles that you can't put a price tag on,” he said.
Chellel said that during the past couple of years, he has seen an upswing in the mood of what he calls “the loud minority,” consisting of Tea Party members and other fiscal conservatives who simply want to see cuts in what taxpayer dollars are funding. 'There are people out there who despise paying anything toward teachers or public education,” said Chellel. “From my first year on the School Committee to now, an anti-teacher sentiment seems to have grown. Some seem to think that if you're getting paid by a taxpayer, you're an evil person.” But, Chellel pointed out, teachers and other municipal employees “are rendering a service that is vital to every city and town.”
Chelle bemoaned the fact that there seems to be a growing movement that blames teachers for the economic downturn because they use tax dollars. He concedes that while education is one of the biggest contributors to municipal debt, it shouldn't be considered as a debt because “we need an intelligent, educated workforce in order to have a stronger state and economy.”
Chellel said his late father, Thomas, was “a proud union man” who worked for the state Sheriff's Department and was the longtime president of Council 94, and noted that he, too, is a strong supporter of labor unions. As such, he defended his role on the School Committee's Labor Sub-Committee and his subsequent vote to support the last teachers' contract after the union agreed to re-open it. The agreement was later criticized by many, including Mayor James Doyle, some School Committee members, and others in the community for not going far enough in producing savings, even though it contained a reduction in salary increases and other concessions.
Despite the controversy, Chellel said he has “no regrets” over that vote, and noted that without the last contract change, the teachers would be receiving a scheduled salary increase of four percent. He said the fact that the union has been asked, and has agreed, to re-open the contract once again in the wake of the city's worsening fiscal situation is something that he feels bad about personally even though he voted for the request. “I feel like, I signed that last contract, and now I'm going against my word,” he noted.
Chellel said that one of his most difficult votes was on the question of whether or not to move the Jacqueline M. Walsh School for the Visual and Performing Arts from its original home in the Pawtucket Armory building to its new location in Jenks Junior High School. “I had believed in Mayor Doyle's vision of making the city an art mecca and I didn't want to see it collapse in the move from the Armory,” Chellel said. However, he noted that the JMW School has also become “a major success story for the city” and is one that he was able to watch from his seat on the School Committee.
Chellel also acknowledged the divisiveness that has plagued the School Committee during the past couple of years. However, he said that on his last meeting, on Dec. 14, he addressed each of the members personally, thanking them for working with him and noting their positive qualities, even though at times it “got personal.” He said he hopes the new committee, going forward, can “agree to disagree.”
Chellel added that while his time on the committee has come to an end, he has already had new bumper stickers printed up that read “Chellel for 12.” “I don't think this is the end of me politically. Of course, it's up to the voters,” he stated. He added, of his time on the School Committee, “I'm really going to miss it.”