Council unanimously appoints Mike Marran, Carol Vetter to fill vacancies
SOUTH KINGSTOWN – In all, nine highly qualified candidates put their names forward with hopes of putting their talents to good use in one of the vacant seats on the school committee, but two community members stood out in particular.
On Thursday, after multiple nights of interviews with school committee hopefuls, the town council reconvened to share their top two picks, with the assumption that the process would go late into the evening as they whittled down that list of names.
Amazingly, however, all five town council members were in unanimous agreement when it came to their top choices– Mike Marran and Carol Vetter.
“I did not expect this to happen tonight,”
Councilwoman Jess Rose said shortly after the swift vote was passed. “I am so glad that it’s happened this way, and to me, this seems to be a good starting point for moving forward together.”
While the task of filling vacancies on the school committee has always fallen into the hands of the town council per the town charter, this was the first time the two public bodies have worked hand-in-hand to find the best candidates for the job. Together, the town council and the school committee came up with questions for the candidates, and considered the needs of the community over the next fifteen months.
In addition to input from the school committee going into the process, there was also feedback from community members who tuned in for the candidate interviews last week.
“So many people reached out,”according to Rose. “People from every part of town and every ideology out there.”
From the communication she received, Rose believes there’s a consensus from many, many other community members that Marran and Vetter are the two best people for the job.
“I truly hope this is the bridge we so desperately need in this town to move forward,” Rose said. “I’m ecstatic. This is everything I could have hoped for to come out of this meeting.”
Other members of the council stressed the wide depth of professional experience and expertise both candidates will be bringing to the table, and how much their skills can help the school committee before the next election in November 2022.
Many of the questions that council members posed toward candidates concerned themselves with building transparency and trust with the community, and highlighted the tumultuous times South Kingstown seems to be weathering.
“I don’t think you can turn a switch and say, ‘Okay, the public is going to trust you on this,’” Marran told council members during his interview last Monday. “To a certain extent, there are sections of town that are familiar with me because I’ve been here for so long, and I think I’ve got a pretty good reputation, but as a collective body, the only way to build that trust is transparency and communication.”
Everyone won’t agree with the decisions you’re making, he said, but it’s important that the committee provide “solid reasons for why you’re doing what you’re doing.”
“Communicating constructively, as an attorney, I have to deal with clients all the time and tell them ‘You might want this, but you can’t have it, and this is why,’” Marran said. “Part of that is having a relationship with the client, that they understand yourqualifications, your experience, and hopefully, their experience with you in prior situations. That you understand their interests.”
Councilwoman Deb Bergner acknowledged that sometimes, making the right decision may go against the grain, and that public officials can be on the receiving end of criticism from community members. One of her questions for Marran was how comfortable he would be in that position, especially in the age of social media.
“Not spending a lot of time on social media helps,” Marran said, with a bit of a lighthearted laugh. “In some respects, particularly in the public arena, I think that’s more of a distraction than anything else –and you all know this better than I do.”
“You have a job to do, and it’s not based on likes, or Facebook pages, or comments,” he added. “It’s based on the evidence that comes in to you, and the information you have to make decisions. You make them and let the chips fall where they may.”
Whereas Marran brings legal expertise to the committee, Vetter offers up a vast financial and accounting expertise from her years working in corporate finance. One of her many responsibilities while working for a major corporation was overseeing its balances sheets – looking at everything from inventory, reserve accounts and receivables – and then drilling down to see what those numbers actually meant.
“A budget is an estimate,” Vetter said. “It’s really what’s happening behind the numbers that we need to get at, and ask those questions.”
She believes her extensive experience in budget creation and analysis “will be extremely important in this coming year,” and that she has the skills necessary to help the community begin healing.
“I’m deeply aware of all of the issues within the school district,” Vetter said, and has a particular interest in helping to usher improvements in special education. “My middle son is hearing impaired, along with other disabilities, so I know how important IEP and 504 plans are, and what it’s like to advocate for these students.”
“Our community has been through some difficult times, recently,” Vetter said. “Besides the pandemic, we’ve had recent challenges on the school committee, and the facilities bond. And now we need to come together and heal as a community. We need to build back trust. We need to treat people with respect, and we need to listen to one another.”
All three of her sons graduated from South Kingstown Schools, and in addition to nearly two decades of volunteer work in the classroom, she has sat on numerous district committees that helped chart the course of the learning community’s future – like choosing a new high school principal.
Both Vetter and Marran are in strong agreement that the most important task before the school committee will be choosing the next superintendent. That decision will set the tone and course for all of the other work to follow, according to Marran, and the committee needs to take the time to get it right.
“The school committee has a lot of work to do, and a short time to do it in,” Vetter told council members during her interview last Wednesday. “It’s imperative that we are successful, because this is the future of our students at stake. We can’t afford to fail.”
“I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and get to work,” she added.
Both candidates stressed the importance of moving forward with anti-racism teachings and equity within the schools, too.
“Not all of our students come to school with the same advantages, so we need to meet the students where they are, and provide them with the support that they need,” Vetter said. “Equity is meeting the students where they are, and making sure they have the tools to succeed.”
Education can lift people out of poverty, she added, so it’s imperative that the district works to provide a strong, robust curriculum, high expectations for all students, and provides our great teachers the resources they need to help make this happen.
During discussions of equity, all candidates hoping to be appointed to a seat on the school committee were asked about the wide differences in class sizes between the four elementary schools – especially at the kindergarten level.
'We do not have equity in our elementary schools,” Vetter said. “We have classrooms that are very small, and others that are filled to capacity. It really is something that needs to be addressed.”
“I have been through redistricting twice with my children – one at the elementary school level and one at the middle school level – and it’s difficult,” she added. “You love what you know, and when you talk about moving to a school that you don’t know, you don’t know how your children will be in that new school. Of course there’s anxiety.”
The most important part of this process, she said, is listening to the community, and holding open forums to give them a chance to be heard. Many districts have to go through this process, and some much more frequently than others to avoid inequities in class sizes.
“It’s a necessary process,” she said, “and it’s probably time that we revisit this.”
Listening to the community is also going to be critical when the district moves forward with another school facilities plan, because as Marran stressed, building improvements are desperately needed.
“I’m in favor of starting from the beginning, but this time, making sure we work with the community at every step of the way,” Vetter said. “Because when you go to bond, if you haven’t done the work with the community, you’re not going to be successful.”
While weighing the decision of which candidates to appoint to the school committee, Councilwoman Deb Kelso said her topchoices reflect who she believes would be “the strongest advocate for all students, while holding the administrators, teachers and staff in highest regard.”
“Their ability to embrace measured, thoughtful decision making, based on their own life experience, education and profession, and their acknowledgment that the school committee must function as a team, with the highest level of transparency and ethics, was high on my list of priorities as I narrowed my selections,” Kelso said. “Several applicants came right up to touching those markers, but I had to choose two.”
“I believe they will both be an asset to the committee, to our town, and most of all, to the students of South Kingstown,” Kelso said.
Town Council President Abel Collins, along with every other member of the council, expressed his thanks to community members who threw their names in the running, and for their willingness to serve their community.
“After serving on the council here for about seven years, I’ve come to expect really top-quality candidates for every board and commission that we have in town,” Collins shared, “but I was a little worried these particular openings, with the toxicity we’ve seen around the school committee, that we wouldn’t get that same level.”
“The community proved me wrong,” he added.