Four islanders will compete for three School Committee seats
Two incumbents and two challengers are vying for three seats on the School Committee. Ryan Conlon, the youngest hopeful, is a college student who was educated both in Jamestown schools. Cathy Kaiser, who is currently the board’s chairwoman, is a public school teacher in Attleboro, Mass. Julia Held, the other incumbent seeking re-election, is a part-time college professor. And Lowell Thomas, a businessman, also brings a background in public service to education.
Conlon, 21, a Democrat, was born in Newport and calls himself a lifelong resident. He is a college student working toward a bachelor’s degree in political science at the University of Rhode Island.
Conlon attended the Jamestown schools and graduated from North Kingstown High before continuing his education at the Community College of Rhode Island where he earned an associate’s degree. Conlon, who is single, says his hobby is fishing.
Conlon has worked on political campaigns. He was a volunteer in 2010 for David Segal, candidate for U.S. Congress. In 2011, he became an intern in U.S. Sen. Jack Reed’s office.
This is his first bid for elected office. He is running to get involved inside of the community, he said. Because he is a product of the Jamestown schools, he feels he has a different perspective than older people who have been away from the day-to-day experience inside a school.
For one example, Conlon said, he believes teachers do not have enough say about the education they are offering students, due to state curriculum requirements and federal mandates.
“Teachers aren’t allowed to set their own teaching plan,” he said. “They don’t have enough freedom.”
Conlon also opposes the state’s decision to withhold a high school diploma if students are unable to pass the standardized assessment tests. This decision will force some special-needs students to accept a certificate instead.
Conlon says he feels strongly that the diploma should be based on a complete evaluation of a student’s performance, and not on the results of a single test.
If he wins, his priority will be to ensure that the Jamestown schools continue to provide a good education. “I enjoyed the close attention I received from teachers, and the sense of knowing that if you needed help, it was available.”
Conlon will also focus on “balancing the interests” of the schools and the taxpayers.
As a North Kingstown graduate, Conlon said he enjoyed his high school years, but he will be “open to any dialogue” about sending islanders to other schools.
North Kingstown and Jamestown have a one-year agreement allowing islanders to attend North Kingstown as tuition students. Either side can end the relationship.
Conlon believes that Jamestown parents have appreciated the convenience of sending their teens to a school nearby that offers a quality education.
Held, 55, was born in New York City. She moved to Jamestown in 1981. Held is a Wellesley College graduate where she majored in biology. She continued her education at Rhode Island College where she earned a master’s degree in teaching. She is a college professor and teaches part time at Rhode Island College and the Community College of Rhode Island.
Held, who kept her maiden name, has been married 31 years to Randy White. She has three children who have attended the Jamestown schools and North Kingstown. Her hobbies are gardening, swimming and reading.
Held is running for her third term as a School Committee member, which is the only political office she has ever held or sought. She is a Democrat, and was first elected in 2005 after being “involved in a variety of ways with schools.”
She is running because the schools are going through a critical time and she wants to help oversee the transition. The panel’s members do not by law become directly involved with operations, she said, such as managing the transition to a new curriculum. That’s the administration’s job, but Held said that School Committee members can support the educators by making sure the teachers have the necessary tools to deliver quality education. “I feel a real sense of responsibility for children. This is the way I feel I can contribute.”
Held said she does not have any agenda. “There’s nothing any one individual School Committee member can accomplish,” she said, adding that she believes the sitting board’s strength is partly due to the fact the members don’t have personal agendas. But they all share a commitment to excellence and want the Jamestown School Department to continue to focus on its mission: excellence in education. “Our children deserve it,” she said.
Held said the big matter is “the perennial issue,” which she defi ned as “how to manage things effectively.” Held said the school system is efficient. She described the fiscal policy as “careful but not cheap,” meaning, she said, that the committee members look hard at how taxpayer money is being spent. Held said the finances have been challenging given the sour economy and rising costs.
“No one likes paying any more taxes,” she said.
According to Held, another issue is the arrangement with North Kingstown High School, which remains “a continuing subject.” In a nutshell, North Kingstown is facing financial problems, Held said, and those challenges have led to friction between town and school leaders. But North Kingstown has “been the clear choice” for Jamestown students in studies over the past 30 years, according to Held, who serves as liaison between the two school boards. She said the Jamestown School Committee should keep an eye on developments and continue to assess the options.
“North Kingstown High has a good program, and I have a lot of confidence in the superintendent,” she said. “But there are a lot of challenges.”
On the issue of the high school diploma, Held said the state has the authority to set the requirements. She does not think a final decision has been made about an alternative certificate, in lieu of a diploma, for special-education students who do not take the assessment exams. “But it’s not something we have to wrestle with.
Kaiser, 61, was born in Pittsfi eld, Mass. She moved to Europe at age 13 and lived for several years in Holland and Switzerland. She is a 21-year Jamestown resident and a Democrat.
Kaiser holds a bachelor’s degree in French from Mills College in Oakland, Calif. She continued her studies at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., and earned a master’s in comparative literature. Kaiser teaches at Attleboro High and has also worked in public relations as a writer and editor. She has two adult sons.
Kaiser said she has little time for hobbies but does enjoy photography. Jamestown’s “idyllic beauty” is her subject.
Her public service started in the 1990s with the Jamestown Ambulance Association. She drove an ambulance for several years. Kaiser has served as chairwoman of the Jamestown School Committee since 2001. She is an executive board member of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, a post she has held since 2002. In 2004, the association recognized her for “outstanding school committee leadership.” Her committee roles also have led her to work with the legislature. She has represented Rhode Island school committees on three legislative commissions: the unfunded mandates issue in 2007, the school funding formula in 2009, and unifi ed health insurance benefits in 2011.
She is running because she wants to have some say in “how best to use our resources,” she said. “The district continues to face the pressure of decreasing state funding, which has ramifications for every decision we make.” Kaiser said she wants to make sure the schools maintain the high quality “that our students and community deserve.”
If re-elected, Kaiser said her goals are to support the administration and staff during the switch to a new curriculum, and to continue to be an active voice at the State House, where she testifies on issues that impact Jamestown and education statewide. She also wants to establish strategy and procedures for addressing federal mandates concerning the district’s other post-employment benefits liability; to continue to review on a regular basis the high school of record and to collaborate with its elected leaders to ensure that it is the optimal placement for students; and to work in partnership with unions and community interest groups to both meet and balance the needs of students, staff and residents.
Thomas, 52, is the Republican candidate. He was born in Philadelphia and became a year-round resident five years ago. Thomas was educated at Tufts University where he majored in economics. Thomas is also a chartered financial analyst, which is a professional credential awarded to investment portfolio managers and financial analysts by the CFA Institute. He is single, and his hobbies include sailing, golf and landscaping.
His public service work started 15 years ago when he joined the board of the Kieve Effective Education in Maine. Lowell described the organization as “a Mainebased nonprofit that offers educational programs for middle school students in a camp setting.”
“By employing experiential teaching methods, Kieve encourages responsible decision making by increasing self-awareness and self-confidence,” he said.
Locally, Thomas served on the Committee on LNG Threat, which town councilors formed to oppose Hess Oil’s plan to build a liquefi ed natural gas terminal in Mount Hope Bay.
He is currently a board member and the treasurer of the Conanicut Island Land Trust, and a board member of the Jamestown Chamber of Commerce.
Thomas ran unsuccessfully for School Committee last year.
He is running due to a commitment to public service, which, he said, “runs deep in my family.” He also feels his business and finance experience has prepared him to make unique and valuable contributions.
If elected, Thomas said he has three priorities. He wants the local administrators to be in charge and will back government initiatives, which the Jamestown schools currently have underway, to give school administrators greater control over how their schools are run. He will also work to make the Jamestown schools the clear choice over private education.
“We are losing too many students to private schools. This is not good for the schools, as we are potentially losing high-performing students and involved parents.”
Finally, he will focus on the school budget. Currently, no one on the Jamestown School Committee has professional finance experience, he said. Thomas says he offers those professional credentials, which have been missing from the board.