Candidates for the North Kingstown and Exeter-West Greenwich (EWG) School Committees are gearing up for the General Election in November. In North Kingstown, five candidates will be competing for three seats, while two EWG candidates will appear on the ballot, with two open seats for Exeter residents available.
Nearly every candidate cited the COVID-19 pandemic as the major obstacle going forward, and detailed plans and priorities with that in mind.
As the current vice-chair of the school committee, Robert Jones is seeking reelection for another term on the school committee.
Jones, a Republican, has spent eight years on the committee, and said during that time he has helped shape “very specific goals and outcomes for the district,” adding that the committee has maintained a focus on how it allocates resources, how it holds the district accountable and how it sets supportive policies.
“Effective school board members bring their unique talents while knowing that advancing teaching and learning and prioritizing educationally purposeful activities require working collaboratively with other board members, district leadership, and the larger community of stakeholders that make those things happen and support the district,” Jones said.
Some specific priorities of the current committee include setting goals for both short-term and long-term infrastructure; emphasizing learning proficiencies, with growth seen in those areas; focusing on improved security and safety at the schools, including a major investment in enhanced security capabilities; supporting enhanced fiscal accountability and expanding financial management and oversight; and supporting enhanced Career and Technical Education pathways.
“The district has been recognized as being among the best in the state despite having a per pupil expenditure that is the lowest among all traditional districts and the majority of charter school LEAs in Washington County,” Jones added.
Going forward, Jones said that the immediate focus had to be on how the district responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, though said there were still important “post-COVID-19” issues, as well.
He said North Kingstown was a “funding formula loser” when it came to state aid to education, with more than 80 percent of public education costs being funded through local taxpayer dollars.
“It’s a flawed formula that the General Assembly needs to fix,” he said. “In the next two fiscal years, the projection is North Kingstown will take major hits to its already scarce state aid, thus putting more burden either on local taxpayers or the district to find efficiencies or cuts.”
And while the district currently has a surplus, Jones said that “good stewardship means thinking beyond just the moment.”
He also highlighted the need to prepare a long-term infrastructure plan when it comes to the district’s schools, adding that residents should be presented with a plan for how the district will look in the next 20 to 30 years.
“We have 60 to 90 year old schools and putting more money into most of them at some point becomes similar to putting new engines into old, inefficient cars,” he said. “School consolidation and modernization needs to be solved.”
He also said he supported enhanced civics and technology instruction, expanding career and pathway opportunities and enhancing the “margin of excellence” the district offers through extracurriculars, arts and music, and athletics. Jones went on to say that the district had to be cognizant of the special education population, with all students, to some extent, receiving a tailored education, while also being prepared to be “college and career ready citizens.”
Jones said that he has the experience to deal with the challenges ahead, if reelected, though added that the “heavy lifting is done by the employees of the district.”
“I believe having experience counts right now given the challenges ahead,” he said. “It’s easy to promise this or that, but the realities of being a school committee member are being informed on a wide variety of issues, understanding the impacts beyond the immediate concerns, and building consensus to find workable solutions given resources are not unlimited.”
With his deep understanding of district operations, his career experiences as a long-serving military officer and now higher education professional and teacher, and having children educated in the district, Jones said he would provide leadership to the district while also working collaboratively in meeting the “challenges ahead for educating our children.”
Jennifer Hoskins, a Democrat and current member of the school committee, said that, after being elected, she “realized quickly that the learning curve was fairly steep.” However, over her last four years on the committee, Hoskins said she worked collaboratively with other members to make much needed changes through “formulating district policies and setting strategic goals with the administration.”
“For me, it was important to identify what the educational needs in the community were. What was important to the students, parents and teachers in North Kingstown,” she said.
One major highlight of her time on the committee was the focus on a multi-million dollar bond referendum that addressed issues with maintenance and upgrades.
“Along with these upgrades and repairs, we set forth policies which set aside funding to make sure the maintenance of these repairs and upgrades didn’t once again fall on taxpayers and future committees to resolve,” she said.
Another issue that was taken up over her term included “addressing and supporting the social-emotional and behavioral needs of students at the elementary and middle school levels.”
“This committee has made school security and safety a priority,” she said. “Many improvements were made in this area and continue to be made to keep our schools safe. “
Other areas included analyzing and evaluating school start times, specifically the earliest high school start time in the district; technology upgrades; and, of course, school reopenings in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Currently, our focus has been on reopening due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said. “The planning and uncertainty of the upcoming school year has weighed heavily on the committee and administration. Balancing the educational needs at all levels with safety and safely reopening whether in-person, distance learning, or a combination of both.”
“This has been a major area of focus,” she continued. “We have been listening to the concerns and suggestions of all the parents, teachers and students who have been actively involved over the past few months. It is extremely important for the committee to focus on making sure there are resources available for teachers, staff and students throughout the 20-21 academic year as we navigate unprecedented times in education.”
Issues that continue to be pressing, and what she would focus on in her next term, if reelected, include class sizes and support programs for students and teachers; school start times; special education; and addressing social, emotional and behavioral needs to students. Other matters included the evaluation of infrastructure and possible school consolidation.
She also said that the committee and department had to evaluate its curriculum and listen to past students who “have asked for more classes to be taught regarding race and racism in the United States.”
“If reelected, I would continue to work collaboratively with the committee to formulate policy and set goals with the administration working towards completing tasks related to the issues described above in order to make these visions a reality,” she concluded. “As a committee member it is extremely important to me to be able to serve and support the district.”
Jacob Mather, a Democrat and current member of the school committee, was first appointed in 2019 after former member Tony Jones announced his resignation. Since that time, he said he has been “learning the ropes and working with an incredible group of committee members, administrators, teachers, leaders and citizens.”
Mather was also the former parent/teacher organization president at Hamilton Elementary, where his two children currently attend. And as a small business owner, he said he has also developed strong leadership, negotiation and communication skills that I believe have been an asset to our schools and our town.
However, a great deal of his time on the school committee has been trying to provide quality education during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The struggles of how to provide the quality education that North Kingstown is known for in a safe, socially distant and responsible way has been at the top of my priority list for nearly six months,” he said. “I am so proud of our teachers, staff, administrators and leaders for their countless hours of planning, organizing and negotiating to develop new learning tools to keep our children engaged and safe while continuing to uphold the educational standards our town is known for.”
He said it represented the biggest hurdle moving forward.
“The safety of our children, our teachers and our community is my number one priority,” he said. “As a school committee member I have been working hard to address an incredibly broad range of concerns from the social and emotional well-being of our younger population to their continued uncompromising educational development.”
He said that after receiving a wide range of comments and concerns from residents regarding how the upcoming school year would proceed, the committee was working hard to “address as many of these concerns as possible while simultaneously trying to keep our budget balanced and our community safe.”
“I will continue working with other members of our school committee, administration, teachers, staff, and union leaders to find responsible solutions that address our parent’s concerns,” Mather said. “I have always felt that every single person has the right to have their voice heard. I will always listen and do what I can to continue making sure our children have the unparalleled educational opportunities they deserve.”
After recent events, challenger Jennifer Lima said she started thinking long and hard about what, specifically, she could do to “affect positive change in our world.”
“My husband and I tell our kids to get involved, get out there, to be the change they wish to see in the world, and so on,” she said. “But how can I expect my children to do those things when I’m sitting on the sofa? It’s easy to complain and critique from the comfort of my living room, it’s harder to stand up and take action. I care about our schools and I care about the lessons my children learn, so this is me standing up and taking action.”
Lima, a Democrat, said that the most pressing issue facing the school district was “whether and how it’s possible to reopen schools safely,” with the safety and health of students and staff being “paramount in any decision making process.”
She also said that the transition to distance learning last school year only heightened the disparities in educational experiences, adding that “this upcoming year is going to be a year like no other.”
“We need to ensure that those students most at risk to fall behind (whether that be due to educational or socio-economic reasons) do not slip through the cracks,” she said.
Her experience with her own children being enrolled in the school district has given her insight into areas that can be improved.
“Some of my children have been high achieving, others have struggled,” she said. “It’s been my experience that you do very well in school if you are the first type of student, not so well if you are the second.”
One of her priorities would be to ensure an equitable access to learning experiences for all students.
She also said that schools must be adequately funded, “now more than ever,” to not only support basic needs of students, but also absorb the “additional expenses that come with operating during the COVID-19 era.”
“And that doesn’t even begin to touch on the fact that the budget for sports, arts, music, and library and consumer science, among other things, has been whittled away at year after year,” she said.
If elected, Lima said she would work in conjunction with the school committee and the state to ensure North Kingstown followed science and safety protocols related to reopening schools. She also said she would seek input from major stakeholders, including students, when making decisions.
Further, she said she would review the data subsets of the latest assessment from the Rhode Island Department of Education to try to “pinpoint where gaps in our educational process exist,” while also working to increase access to opportunities for subpopulations at risk. She cited South Kingstown as an example of a school district that identified ways to address systematic racial inequities and highlighted areas for improvement.
Finally, she said that she would “encourage the town council to provide more money to the school department and not less.”
“North Kingstown has an amazing school system. It is one of the reasons people move here,” she said. “If we keep chipping away at the programs that have made it what it is, not only will we be denying our town’s future citizens the opportunity for the best education possible, we are being shortsighted by destroying part of what makes this town great.”
Challenger Hanna Zangari, a Republican, could not be reached for an interview.
When Paul McFadden, a current member of the EWG School Committee, was asked why he decided to run for reelection, he answered concisely.
“Job [is] not done,” said McFadden, a Republican.
In his view, the most pressing issue currently facing the EWG school district was the need to “concentrate more on elementary education regarding student performance,” adding that the state standardized test results “remain poor.”
He also said he would work towards a more “affordable public education,” calling attention to the comparatively high cost per student. McFadden said he would continue to work with both the Exeter and West Greenwich Town Councils to address these “long standing issues.”
Newcomer Michael Picillo, who is running as a Republican, did not return multiple requests for an interview.
The General Election will take place on Nov. 3. For more information, visit https://vote.sos.ri.gov.