East Providence Schools Superintendent candidate Mercer answers questions at public forum
EAST PROVIDENCE — A confident, articulate J. Kimberly Mercer answered about a dozen questions Wednesday night, Feb. 27, at a public meeting where she interacted initially with members of the East Providence community for which she may very well serve as the next Superintendent of Schools.
School Committee Chairman Joel Monteiro delivered the predetermined questions to Ms. Mercer, the leading the candidate for the post, before roughly 75 people who attended the special session in the City Hall Chamber. The questions were culled from those submitted by East Providence teachers, administrators and residents prior to the meeting.
Showing no discomfort with being in the spotlight, Ms. Mercer had detailed, direct answers to all of the queries, which ran the gamut of what would be expected from her as the new superintendent. If hired, Ms. Mercer would replace Interim Schools chief Dr. John DeGoes and be the first permanent East Providence superintendent in over 18 months since Mario Cirillo was relieved of his responsibilities in the middle of 2011.
"I'm excited about the opportunity," Ms. Mercer said of the prospect of landing the position.
Interim City Human Resources Director Heather Martino, who, like Mr. Monteiro, was one of five members on the Superintendent Selection Committee, introduced Ms. Mercer to the audience.
In doing so, Ms. Martino also noted publicly for the first time that beside herself, Mr. Monteiro and East Providence Budget Commission Chairman Diane Brennan the other two Selection Committee members were Mary Ann Snider of the Rhode Island Department of Education and Georgia Fortunato, the current Town of Lincoln Schools Superintendent,
As for Ms. Mercer, the candidate has spent the previous 26-and-a-half years working in the Pawtucket School District, the last 11 plus as the Deputy Superintendent. She has degrees and certifications with an emphasis in Special Education from Rhode Island College and the University of Connecticut. Her Master's Degree in Education Administration comes from Providence College.
Ms. Mercer spent part of her career as a classroom Special Education teacher. She also was a professor on the same subject for nine years at RIC.
Ms. Martino explained Ms. Mercer was the unanimous choice of the Selection Committee, the School Committee and the Budget Commission to be considered for the position.
Following multiple interviews, Ms. Martino added, "We felt (Ms. Mercer) was the one candidate to distinguish herself above the rest and should advance through to the third stage of the process," which was Wednesday's public meeting.
Ms. Mercer's expertise in Special Ed was immediately brought to the fore with the first few questions of the evening.
She noted as Deputy Pawtucket Superintendent she is currently charged with overseeing aspects of Federal funding from Titles I, II and III. She also has authority over all school department purchases. On other budgetary matters she said, as is the case in Pawtucket, it's important to "prioritize" with limited resources.
As for Special Needs pupils specifically, she said as Superintendent she "would not move a student's placement just to save money" and that it was important to offer them "appropriate programs to meet student needs." She said she backed "inclusion" programs whenever possible.
How she would contend with the perceived lack of employee morale in the department was the next question asked to which Ms. Mercer responded she believed it "wasn't where it needed to be because the central office wasn't where it needed to be."
She added, "I think it's important teachers know someone is there supporting them and is listening. And that someone is there to let them know the work they are doing is appreciated."
Ms. Mercer was also asked about her role in the community and in building support for the school system. She answered, "It's very important to communicate the needs of the schools. It's important to be vocal and get the message out."
She added later to a similar inquiry, "A superintendent needs to be visible and be out in the public. People need to see you and talk to you. I like to visit schools, attend after-school activities." She also said it was important for the school department to be as "transparent as possible."
Though not totally informed on the East Providence School System, she said has worked with city teachers and administrators extensively in the past. She called many on staff "excellent" and "professional" and said a key ingredient was to give teachers the tools and support they need to excel at their craft.
Ms. Mercer said it would be incumbent of the next Superintendent to begin aligning instruction with changes in mandatory testing and that there is a need to provide teachers with the resources to meet "Common Core" requirements.
On school safety, Ms. Mercer said Pawtucket has long locked all building doors, has used buzzers and monitors, made visitors check into the main offices and have personnel and visitors wear badges. She said schools must "consistently enforce" and "stay on top" of safety procedures.
Once Mr. Monteiro was done with the submitted questions, he asked his fellow School Committee members if they had any of their own. Ward 4 representative Tim Conley did, asking among other things why Ms. Mercer would want the East Providence position?
She responded, "A lot of people have asked me that after spending 27 years in Pawtucket. I listened to (East Providence) teachers and administrators talk about their lack of leadership in the central office and I felt bad because they have such talented people in the schools. I want to be the leader to take the district where it needs go and I think it can also go far."
In concluding the meeting, Ms. Martino stressed no formal decision to hire Ms. Mercer has been made. She said the Selection Committee will meet to discuss how Wednesday's session went then will eventually make a final recommendation to both the Budget Commission and the School Committee. Ms. Martino said the public can also continue to give its input on the subject by emailing email@example.com.
The hiring of a Superintendent does not appear on the current Budget Commission agenda for its Feb. 28 meeting. If it isn't heard then, the next time the Commission could consider any hire would be its March 14 meeting. As it still stands, the Budget Commission holds final approval for all new hires.