Newport School Committee candidates face off

By Sean Flynn 
Daily News staff writer 
Posted at 6:56 PM Updated at 7:00 PM

NEWPORT — Eight of the 10 candidates for the Newport School Committee faced off Tuesday evening during a forum held in the Pell Elementary School cafeteria and attended by more than 100 people.

The forum was the first of three candidates forums organized by the Alliance for a Livable Newport, a neighborhood advocacy group. Questions were posed by Jane Koster, president of the League of Women Voters of Rhode Island.

The forum was the first of three candidates forums organized by the Alliance for a Livable Newport, a neighborhood advocacy group. Questions were posed by Jane Koster, president of the League of Women Voters of Rhode Island.

Participating in the forum were three challengers: Louisa Boatwright, Aida Neary and Robert Leary, a former member of the School Committee. Two of the challengers on the Nov. 6 ballot were absent: Karlie Cesarini and Kelly Anne Lohrum, who both notified the debate organizers that they had family emergencies.

All five incumbents running for re-election were present: Rebecca Bolan, David Carlin III, Sandra Flowers, Raymond Gomes and Kathleen Silvia.

Two of the incumbents on the seven-member School Committee are not running for re-election: longtime member Jo Eva Gaines and David Hanos, who resigned from the committee in early August and had his name removed from the ballot for the Nov. 6 election.

At one point in the forum, there were a series of questions in which the candidates answered “yes” or “no,” and then had up to 30 seconds to explain their positions.

When the candidates were asked whether a new high school should be located in the North End of the city, only Boatwright voted in the affirmative. She argued most Newport public school students live in the North End and having a high school there would help address the absenteeism and tardiness problems among students.

Gomes did not vote, saying he would await the recommendation of a School Committee facility subcommittee now studying possible locations for a new school.

Other candidates said the North End simply does not have available land.

“If someone could find land in the North End, I’d support it,” Silvia said.

“I’d like to see a high school in the North End,” Bolan agreed.

A study by the state Department of Education released last year said Rogers High School has the direst repair needs of any public high school in the state and is a prime candidate for replacement, since renovation costs would be so high.

On the question of whether the City Council adequately funds the schools, Carlin, Gomes and Leary were in the affirmative.

“We do not have a funding problem; we have a spending problem,” Carlin said more than once during the forum.

Boatwright pointed out that the council’s 1.5 percent increase in its allocation for schools forced layoffs this year. Silvia said Newport devotes a smaller percentage of its municipal budget to schools than most other communities in the state.

When asked whether the School Department has the programs and achievement results to attract families and students to the schools, the candidates split down the middle.

Bolan, Flowers, Gomes and Silvia thought the schools’ offerings are attractive to new families, while Boatwright, Carlin, Neary and Leary were in the negative.

During the forum, Carlin and Leary pointed out multiple times that there was a deficit of about $1.8 million in the 2017-2018 budget that closed on June 30 this year.

Leary called it a “financial crisis.”

“Fiscal responsibility has to be priority No. 1,” Carlin said.

Gomes, who is the School Committee chairman, said the overspending on budget items was partially offset by revenue reserves and savings within that school budget, so the actual deficit amounted to about $750,000. He said the City Council and the city’s Finance Department are working on a repayment plan for that amount.

The current school budget totals $40.49 million and includes all local, state and federal revenues. Of that total, the City Council approved a $25.97 million appropriation, which was a 1.5 percent increase over last year’s city appropriation. Bu it was $638,072 less than the School Department was counting on for the current school year.

The shortfall of $750,000 in the past budget represents 1.85 percent of the total. Boatwright argued there should not be an exaggerated focus on the shortfall while ignoring all that is being accomplished in the school system.

“Creating a 21st-century learning environment for our students has to be the focus of our efforts,” Boatwright said.

Neary called for a better relationship between the School Committee and the Teachers Association of Newport union when trying to come to terms on issues such as when during the day parent-teachers conferences should be held.

“Negotiations should not bleed into the lives of our students,” she said. “We are all in this for the children. They are our constituency.”

Relations between School Superintendent Colleen Burns Jermain and members of the School Committee also were a focus of the forum.

“Some members of the School Committee believe when the school superintendent says to jump, your job is to ask, ‘How high,’ ” Carlin said. There is not enough communication between the superintendent and committee members, he said.

“I don’t see respect from all members of the School Committee toward the school superintendent,” Boatwright said.

“It’s a personal issue for some School Committee members,” Flowers said.

“Our job is not to direct the superintendent,” Silvia said. “She makes recommendations and we either accept them or reject them. The superintendent and the teachers are the professionals.”

“The children are the people we are supposed to be serving,” Neary said.

When the School Committee and superintendent take actions, they should be asking this, Neary said: “How is this working for the children?”

“Everyone has to work together,” Bolan agreed.

The second ALN forum, set up to hear from the seven candidates for the four at-large seats on the City Council, takes place Thursday beginning at 6 p.m. in the council chamber of City Hall.

The third and final ALN forum, for the two candidates running for the Ward 1 seat and the two candidates running for the Ward 2 seat on the City Council, takes place Tuesday, Oct. 23, beginning at 6 p.m. in the council chamber of City Hall.

sflynn@newportri.com