PAWTUCKET — Two former School Committee chairmen, who were elected back to the committee in November, have been chosen by their fellow board members to assume leadership roles once again.
By unanimous vote Tuesday night, the newly installed School Committee named Raymond Spooner as chairman and Alan Tenreiro as deputy chairman. The board also chose to retain school secretary Diana Liss, who is Spooner’s sister, as its clerk.
In nominating Spooner, School Committeewoman Nicole Nordquist said she had worked with him during her first term on the board and found him to be fair, dedicated to the work of the School Committee and “a straight shooter.” Most importantly, she said, he is the type of person “who can get along with everyone.”
Spooner, a Pawtucket native who described himself as a proud graduate of Tolman High School, pledged to move away from the anger and divisiveness that often marked the last two years of school board meetings and to set about finding solutions to the school district’s current problems.
“It’s not my committee or Debbie’s (Supt. Deborah Cylke’s) committee. It’s our committee,” he stated.
Spooner noted that while the city is in “dire straits,” he believes that by working together as a body “we can do some great things.” He added, however, that particularly with the decisions that have to be made regarding the school budget deficit, “it’s going to be painful,” and said that finding solutions will involve not only the teachers and other school personnel, but “all of us.”
Tenreiro also pledged to return a spirit of civility and cooperation to the school board. He said he thinks it is important for the board members to agree to focus on three things: student achievement, correcting the budget crisis, and “our own governance, leadership and process.”
Tenreiro said he hoped that the board members will “be able to come together on codes of conduct.” Along those lines, he suggested later in the meeting that the “special report of School Committee members” that is typically delivered at the end of each meeting’s agenda be abolished because it frequently ends up as a “soap box” for members who didn’t get their way on committee votes.
Tenreiro also spoke of dismantling many of the sub-committees that the school board has created in the past few years, saying he believed it was more effective and transparent for most decisions to be discussed among the entire seven-member board.
Mayor Donald Grebien addressed the newly installed committee, saying he wanted to “commit my administration’s cooperation.” “Going forward, I believe we have a wonderful opportunity with a new School Committee and a new superintendent.”
However, Grebien noted that with a $13 million deficit—$6 million on the school’s side and $7 million on the city’s side—there are “going to be some hard choices.” He said there have been several talks with municipal unions and he knows there have been meetings with the teachers union as well, and that he is “confident that we can come to some sort of resolutions. But, we need to work together.”
The mayor cautioned, however, that while state Department of Revenue officials have unofficially agreed that they will not be instituting a receivership process for Pawtucket, they have scheduled regular meetings with city officials. “The state will be looking over our shoulders,” he stated.
Grebien concluded by saying that he hopes to build the relationship with the school side “that has far too long not been there.”
At its first meeting of the new year, the board’s only disagreement centered around whether to keep several sub-committees intact, including the current Labor Sub-committee that is involved in negotiating with the Pawtucket Teachers Alliance over re-opening the current contract. In particular, board members questioned if former School Committeeman James Chellel, who had served on the Labor Sub-committee with Nordquist and Joanne Bonollo, should, and even legally could, continue to be involved in negotiations.
School Committeeman Raymond Noonan stated that he did not believe Chellel could serve as an unbiased negotiator and said he would rather see a professional negotiator handle the process rather than the current Labor Sub-committee.
School Committeeman David Coughlin said that while there is precedence for outsiders serving on school sub-committees, he also suggested that perhaps the Labor Sub-committee was “not the way to go” in the current contract talks. He instead proposed that the schools superintendent be the sole negotiator.
However, Nordquist voiced strong opposition to the schools superintendent handling the contract negotiations. She said the Labor Sub-committee has met three times so far with the Pawtucket Teachers Alliance and the talks have been lengthy and detailed. “I think this should keep going as a core group that meets with the teachers,” she stated.
Noonan said he believes that state law mandates it is the duty of the School Committee to negotiate the teachers contract and said he wouldn’t “feel comfortable” with the superintendent doing all of the negotiations. He added, “I hope there are people on this committee who want to march forward with this.”
Cylke said that she, too, does not see her role as being a lead person in the negotiations, but, rather, one who provides the financial information as it is needed. She said she had questions herself about what happens legally when a sub-committee starts up and later loses a school board member.
The board agreed to seek a legal opinion on whether Chellel, who has indicated his desire to remain on the Labor Sub-committee, can legally continue to serve. As to keeping several other sub-committees and naming members to serve on them, the board tabled any action until after its January workshop.
In other matters, the School Committee approved a $12,000 grant application that would fund the establishment of a satellite medical clinic at Shea High School, and to award a $59,500 bid to a company that will install security cameras at Slater Junior High School. The money for this project is being funded by a federal Homeland Security grant.
Additionally, the school board voted to approve the continuation of the state-mandated Wellness Sub-committee, headed up by Committeewoman Joanne Bonollo, and to appoint JoAnn Doyle to the post of assistant swim coach at Shea High School.
The board also heard a brief presentation from a representative of the MGT of America, a nationally known consultant firm that has been hired to do a comprehensive facilities analysis of the entire school district. The final report which will detail the condition of all of the city’s school buildings, is expected to be completed by the end of February.
The board asked Schools Supt. Deborah Cylke to look into drafting a new recycling policy that will include having plastic bottles and cans picked up and recycled by the city’s trash haulers at all of schools. Due to concerns about the storage of used bottles and cans attracting pests, the only recycling currently being done at the schools is for paper and cardboard.
During the meeting, Cylke and the entire school board recognized retiring teacher Mary McGrath, who, with 62 years, is the longest serving educator in the school district.
McGrath, hired in 1948, always worked as a homebound educator, traveling to the homes of students who couldn’t attend regular classes because of illness, injury or other medical reasons.
Cylke presented McGrath with an enlarged copy of the school district’s teacher seniority list, which shows her in the number one spot with her 62 years of service. The superintendent pointed out with amusement that the next closest in seniority to McGrath is 21 years behind her.
McGrath noted that among the many former students she has kept in touch with over the years is one who she had in first grade who went on to become a teacher in the Pawtucket school district herself. “And she retired before me!” joked McGrath.