2016-07-14 / Election News

Packed Slate for School Committee

By Barry Bridges

With a deadline of Friday, July 15, it remains to be seen whether all local and statewide declared candidates will gather the voter signatures required to secure a place for their names on this year’s ballot, but it’s fair to say that strong interest has been shown in the Newport School Committee.

At the end of the filing period on June 29, 18 Newporters had declared their intention to seek a seat on the committee, including all seven incumbents. However, at least one candidate is dropping out of the race.

Filing their papers for re-election with the local canvassing office were incumbents Rebecca Bolan, 60, 4 Channing St.; David R. Carlin III, 46, 3 Rose St.; Sandra J. Flowers, 72, 16 Keeher Ave.; Jo Eva Gaines, 79, 227 Eustis Ave.; David C. Hanos, 46, 133 Van Zandt Ave.; Robert J. Leary, 69, 541 Bellevue Ave., Sunny Lea Cottage; and Kathleen Silvia, 70, 139 Van Zandt Ave.

Ten challengers have also entered the fray: Timothy Donnelly, 37, 40 Dudley Ave.; David Eikeland, 43, 35 Wellington Ave.; Raymond E. Gomes, 51, 543 Spring St.; Adrienne Clemente Haylor, 70, 72 Warner St.; Jennifer E. Jackson, 40, 38 Dudley Ave.; Henry “Hank” Kniskern, 69, 41 Kay St.; Mari C. O’Sullivan, 60, 26 Stockholm St.; Thomas S. Phelan, 63, 75 Old Fort Road; Robert Pinheiro, 51, 6 Narragansett Ave.; and Stephen B. Turcotte, 52, 125 Old Fort Road.

Francis D. Landry, 63, 9 Kempsen St., also filed a timely declaration of candidacy, but informed Newport This Week on July 13 that he would be withdrawing from the race.

If more than 14 of the declarants submit qualifying signatures, the slate will have to be narrowed in the Sept. 13 primary, with the seven victors then determined at the general election on Nov. 8.

Gaines, the current committee chair, is not necessarily surprised at the lengthy roster of office hopefuls, noting that a School Committee primary is not unprecedented in the city. “But it’s good that people are interested,” she said. “I hope it’s because they really want to see improvement in the Newport schools. That’s the only reason I would run.”

The candidates present diverse backgrounds and reasons for seeking office.

Among the challengers is Gomes, a retired firefighter and a father of five children who all attended the Newport schools. As for his interest in the committee, he said, “I have been involved with my kids’ sports and activities over the years, and now I’ve got the time to bring in a positive voice.”

He remarked that there needs to be a larger focus on school programming, with a broadening of vocational offerings to ensure that “every student has an avenue for success,” whether that takes the form of training for a career, or a two- or four-year college program.

As a neighbor of Pell Elementary School, Jackson has attended committee meetings as she tried to resolve issues with flooding on her property. “That’s not why I’m running,” she said. “But it opened my eyes to how the system works, and it has piqued my interest.”

With two children currently in the local schools, Jackson commented that her perspective has changed over the years. “As they get older, you get a better sense of what works and what doesn’t. I truly appreciate the [current] committee, but it may be time to bring in some fresh perspectives.” The at-home mom added that although she is a native Newporter, she has lived in several states and could offer ideas that have been successful in other communities.

Kniskern, retired from a career largely focused on business operations and communications, is confident that his experience with strategic planning puts him in good stead to contribute to the School Committee’s efforts. “I am remarkably surprised about how many good things are occurring in the system,” he said. “There’s a STEAM classroom at Pell, new technology ideas at Thompson, and more programs at Rogers…. We just need to focus on the skills that students need today.”

He feels the schools already benefit from strong community support, and that “momentum will continue if we consolidate our energies as opposed to fragmenting them.”

Having served on the committee “on and off” since 1997, Phelan is hoping that voters will send him back into office so that he can make changes that will “put students first.” Speaking with Newport This Week, he said, “I can see certain individuals on the committee trying to make changes in leadership that would be better for everyone concerned, but they’ve been stymied. Change is slow, and can be almost glacial, but sometimes the status quo goes on for too long.”

Also a product of the Newport schools and now retired, Phelan added, “I’ve been very interested in the schools for many years, and am always hoping to make improvements.”

As to which candidates will complete the next step of gathering and submitting the requisite number of signatures, canvassing officials confirmed that as of Wednesday morning, Donnelly and Eikeland had not picked up the nomination papers needed for the process.

But a final determination of who will qualify to have their names on the ballot, as well as whether the number of School Committee candidates will dictate a September primary vote, will not be known until signatures have been submitted by Friday's deadline and verified by local elections personnel.

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