opinion Newport Rhode Island

Dear Editor:

Is this the time to be handing Newport’s superintendent a two-year contract renewal? On Monday, August 31, at 5PM, the Newport School Committee is scheduled to discuss and vote on a proposed two-year extension to the superintendent’s employment contract. The meeting is online. Public comment may be taken.   

The extension would commit taxpayers to pay salary & benefits to June 30, 2023. This additional cost would be a minimum of $345,000 in compensation. There’s also an optional one-year extension to June 30, 2024. The meeting is listed at http://go.boarddocs.com/ri/npsri/Board.nsf/goto?open&id=BSTJP34BE22D

As a candidate for the Newport School Committee, I have severe misgivings about this abrupt action. Since 2000, Newport taxpayers have poured more than $500 Million into our small public school system. The current superintendent took the seat in 2013. State reports consistently show Newport operating a high cost, huge-achievement gap system where a few kids do reasonably well. Still, most students are not graduating with strong and lifelong learning skills.  

A Boston Globe story from Sept 2019 reported Newport’s superintendent making $167,760, the fourth-highest paid behind Providence, Warwick, and Pawtucket — all significantly larger school systems. 

Monday’s proposed contract hikes the annual salary to $171,116 and $174,538. 

As a candidate for Newport School Committee, I question many aspects of this move, including:

  • Job performance. 
    • When was it last reviewed? (at the Aug 18th meeting?). 
    • Where can the public find future performance evaluation metrics?
    • To what extent have school committee members discussed potential performance goals/metrics with system stakeholders — formally or informally?
    • Does any formal evaluation element — either recent or future — focus on academic achievement? Yes or no?
    • Does any formal evaluation element consider the disturbing RIDE SurveyWorks responses from Thompson and Rogers teachers? Yes or no?

1 Matt Rocheleau, “Here’s How Much Rhode Island School Superintendents Make – The Boston Globe,” BostonGlobe.com (The Boston Globe, September 4, 2019), https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/rhode-island/2019/09/04/here-how-much-rhode-island-school-superintendents-make/OFUzerDJN6k60f9Rx1tenO/story.html –.

  • If “Black Minds Matter,” then why not include a bonus mechanism linked to long-discussed, minority teacher recruitment and/or academic achievement improvements?
  • How does this financial lock-in of at least $345,000 plus benefits help or harm potential district consolidation studies? 
  • The timing:
    • Why do this ahead of the November election when at least one new member would be installed in December?
    • Why a two-year lock-in through June 2023? 

It’s become a common ploy for Newport leaders to keep voters focused on simplistic, “grab the free money” answers. We funded Thompson and Pell school building projects and haven’t yet seen significant improvements in scores. What will it take for school committee members to dig deeper and suggest systemic reforms that might actually kick-start performance gains and close achievement gaps?  

Far too often, adults inside our system reflexively cling to old tired ways. It’s become rare to hear an elected leader provide top-down leadership to champion change. Like the failed Providence school system, Newport voters have become conditioned to watch leaders kick-the-can and polish their list of excuses. Newport schools deserve a new vision and a new direction. Log in on Monday 5PM and offer your public comments. See you online.  

Mike Cullen

Candidate, Newport School Committee