By Meg O’Neil
Tuesday proved to be an easy election day for the seven members of the Newport School Committee who ran unopposed for the first time in over 15 years. Six of the current school committee members will return in January. They are, in order of votes: Jo Eva Gaines (4,674); Charles Shoemaker (4,563); Sandra Flowers (4,345); Robert Leary (4,345); Rebecca Bolan (4,243) and Thomas Phelan (4,240).
Current School Committee chairman Patrick K. Kelley did not seek re-election.
Filling in the seventh seat is committee newcomer Robert Power, who received the fewest votes with 4,121. A former superintendent of the Jamestown school system and former assistant superintendent and interim-superintendent of the Newport Public Schools, Power has also served as chair to the Cliff Walk Commission.
For most members of the school committee, the race – or rather lack thereof – was a disappointment.
“It’s disappointing not to have people involved in our community,” said Leary while he was greeting voters outside the polls of the Newport Public Library on Tuesday. “This is the sixth time I’ve run, and this is the only time that I’ve seen this happen.” It was a cold day, with temperatures in the 40s, but Leary visited each of the city’s seven polling locations, believing that it was important that voters connect his face to the name on the ballot.
Also seeking her sixth term on the committee, Gaines vented her level of disappointment in the lack of candidates. “The deeper meaning behind this is a lack of concern for our schools. I don’t believe that no one else ran because the community has such confidence in the seven of us,” she said. “It’s very frustrating because we have a lot of talent in this town.”
School Committee member Shoemaker said that while the race was an easy win, it was actually getting his name on the ballot that was harder work. “The most onerous part of the whole process was getting 200 signatures from the community to even run,” he said. “It makes no sense compared to city councilors that needs 50 signatures in their ward.”
Both the Middletown and Portsmouth School Committees saw multiple candidates running for the school board, so why not Newport?
The answer was a conundrum to members of the incoming committee, leaving most scratching their head and saying they simply didn’t understand why nobody ran. A few possible ideas:
“It’s hard to beat incumbents,” said Bolan, who has been on the committee for the last four years. She also suggested that Newport is a town with longstanding family names. “A lot of who makes the school committee here in Newport is name recognition. But that doesn’t necessarily correlate with your job performance.”
Some members had other ideas. “It’s a thankless job,” Power said. “No matter what you do, when you make a decision, half of the people and parents will think it was right, half will think it was wrong, and after time, people get worn down and disappointed.”
Gaines concurred, saying, “Everybody has the right to complain and speak up. But when it’s time to run, if you feel that strongly about an issue, run and do something about it to help make a change.”
Additionally, Power said that although he was happy to make the committee, but because there was no hotly contested race, members of the public did not get to hear where the candidates stood on educational issues. “We never got to have a forum to talk to the community about what we think and where we stand. So people have a school committee, but they don’t know what our position is.
Unfortunately, with the way this election season turned out, nobody really got to see what this committee is made of.”
Committee member Shoemaker explained that maybe people simply don’t have the extra time to commit to the committee. “There were quite a few uncontested parties across the state, it’s a lot of hard work to run and it can be quite costly.
Once you get onto the school committee, the work can be very demanding in terms of time. People here are interested in education. They believe it’s important, but perhaps they just don’t have the time.”
Gaines agreed to a point: “I can understand that people have jobs and families, but there must be some people who can afford some time to make things better for the next generation.”
In the coming weeks, the school committee will work behind the scenes on choosing a new chair, as Kelley, who has been at the helm for the past two years, will be gone from the dais.
“The decision needs to be well thought out,” said Bolan. “In my estimation, it’s got to be the person who can do the best job for the kids. We’ve got to choose the best person who will bring everyone together and holds the best interest of our children.”
The committee will vote on the final decision at the first school committee meeting of the new year in January.