Newport partisans are having a field day with my recent Facebook posting of a photo that mirrored the image of the black-masked RI chef holding his calamari plate.  Yes, my Facebook reply — both photo and caption — was in poor taste, and I again apologize. Going forward, I’ll stick to data, analysis, policy and avoid attempts at humor. Now the partisans are screaming “racist” while also tarring my candidate wife, Beth Cullen. She had nothing to do with my actions.  I understand; they have been waiting for a negative nugget to nibble. Unfortunately, I served it up and they have spread it around, gleefully.

I said it on Wednesday night, and I’ll repeat it. I apologize for my poor judgment in using the provocative photo to counter the pro-bond Facebook group’s tongue-in-cheek attempt to take advantage of State Rep Joe McNamara’s calamari clip at the Democratic Convention. The local group had posted that a “calamari station” was planned for the Rogers High School cafeteria.

What a distraction this momentary mistake has become! A selected fragment of my Facebook exchange on the bond proponents’ group page was copied to the larger regional audience on the Nextdoor platform. It’s evident that someone wished to leverage social media’s power, and they did so with viral effect.

What’s galling — but not surprising these days — is the reflexive application of the “racist” label on my wife and me. I know how my value system was shaped; I know Beth’s core values. We’ve given 25 years of volunteerism and educational activism to help unearth, confront, and begin to overcome the deep-seated bigotry long-festering inside Newport’s schools.

For years, we’ve studied and highlighted the shocking achievement gaps across Newport’s racial and socio-economic segments. We’ve listened to natives using the phrase “Those People” to explain away poor performance.  We took the initiative — and absorbed the expected arrows — to architect and propose STEAM public charter schools. This school would have given low-income students a significant enrollment lottery advantage and a healthier educational foundation.  The second proposal was so strong that RIDE asked us to submit it again, this time targeting the Providence area. They advised that Providence was the best option because name-brand Newport politicians were dead set against any charter school setting up shop in Newport County.

We’ve long been lightning rods for change. We regularly challenge the parochialism of the status quo. For example, last week, I called out the flow of state and local special interest political donations, now manipulating voters considering the $106 Million school bond. We view the Pell expansion as much needed, but the Rogers High School rebuild is a poor 50-year investment for the island.  This week, I have poured over Spring 2020 RIDE survey data from teachers and parents.  While Pell shows commendable performance, the teachers at Thompson Middle School are manifestly unhappy in their daily teaching culture and leadership.

As a group, the Thompson teacher responses mirror those from the bottom 10% nationally. The academic performance at Thompson is a nightmare. RIDE withheld the detailed math results for black students because too few were “proficient.” All the kids at Thompson need academic help.  Our teachers continue to plead for help. I hear these pleas; I feel for the students. But who’s talking openly, candidly about this reality and proposing solutions? Who’s doing anything about it?  The status quo players want us to focus on fried calamari.  Really? 

We need a new direction. We need new leaders who can see the broader set of economic opportunities that go beyond tourism. Who will be the new leaders who can envision kids of all races thriving in Newport public schools and confidently moving into high-wage, high-growth careers?

Mike Cullen

Candidate, Newport School Committee

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