PAWTUCKET – City voters will have no shortage of choices for School Committee in the upcoming election, with 13 candidates running for seven seats.
Candidates will now need 200 signatures from registered voters to submit their nomination papers by a July 15 deadline. The top seven vote-getters in the November general election will secure a seat on the Pawtucket School Committee. Eleven of the School Committee candidates are filed as Democrats, and the top seven in the primary will then face incumbent Joseph Knight and newcomer David Fargnoli, running as Independents. Knight previously ran as a Democrat, but running as an independent guarantees him of staying in the race after four other candidates are eliminated.
After two terms on the school board, Roberto Moreno announced that he will be running for an at-large seat on the City Council. This leaves six incumbents who ran as a team and were re-elected in 2018 and 2020.
Five-term member and current Chairperson Erin Dube, a resident of Vine Street, is a college professor and mother of two students in the district. She first ran when her oldest daughter, now an 8th-grader, was in kindergarten. She said she is still drawn to her work on the committee as a way to give back to the community, and wants to continue “to ensure we have schools that I’m proud of and that all families can be proud of.”
After 16 years on the committee, member Joanne Bonollo, a resident of Grand Avenue, said she wants to continue her work supporting health and wellness, and opportunities for low-income students. She helped establish Pawtucket Backpackers to provide supplemental meals during weekends and school holidays, and became chairperson of the first wellness subcommittee, maintaining a focus since then on the “whole child.”
Five-term member Joseph Knight, a resident of Fortin Avenue, says he wants to see through the work the committee started of “rebuilding the Pawtucket schools one by one” and development of a unified high school, though he has expressed concerns with the McCoy Stadium site. Asked about the candidate pool, he said he would like to see most of the existing board carry on and does not know if electing multiple new members would be beneficial. Bonollo also said there is a benefit to continuity.
“It takes a few years on the School Committee to actually figure everything out,” she said. “I’m still learning new things because now we have the district-wide curriculum which we never had before, and which I think is wonderful.”
Other incumbent candidates include four-term member Gerard Charbonneau, a resident of Daggett Avenue, three-term member Kimberly Grant, a resident of Woodbury Street, and two-term member Stephen Larbi, a resident of Riley Street.
Dube said she is excited by the crowded field, saying it shows healthy community interest in public service. New candidate Agi Gai-Kah, 33, a resident of Webster Street who works with the preparatory enrollment program at Rhode Island College, said there’s a chance to elect new members to the committee to provide a voice for “the next generation of Pawtucket.”
“We’ve had some of the same long-time serving members of the School Committee, and I think having new opinions and diverse voices at play to represent, I don’t want to say a newer Pawtucket, but the next generation of Pawtucket and the goals we have for the city,” she said.
Gai-Kah attended Pawtucket schools, graduated from Shea High School, and is now a parent of students in the district. She said she would like to see improvements in after school programming and family outreach. While she does not oppose the unified high school proposal, she said “bigger schools are not necessarily better.”
Fargnoli, a resident of Oakland Avenue, has said he was “not a huge fan of the direction the Rhode Island education system is heading; Pawtucket is no exception to that statement.” He referred to changes to school curriculum, saying a focus on social and emotional learning tactics may benefit some students, but a “blanketed approach is not best for the whole community.”
“I think we need some new leaders in place to have a fresh agenda and fresh ideas, and not go down the same old path that has led us to where we are now in Pawtucket,” he said.
During the pandemic in 2021, the father of two teenage students advocated alongside other parents for a return to in-person learning. Fargnoli said his son has high-functioning autism, and motivators for running includ interest in improving the management of student special education plans, citing dissatisfaction with how his own son’s plan has been handled in the past. He also said he felt situations of bullying in schools were not being addressed.
James Thomas Chellel Jr., a resident of Armistice Boulevard, was a former school committee member and chairperson from 2004 to 2010. He works for the Rhode Island Department of Public Safety as shift supervisor for Rhode Island E911. He is a graduate of Shea High School and lifelong Pawtucket resident. He ran for a City Council at-large seat in 2018, but lost.
He worked as a substitute teacher in the Smithfield school district during the pandemic where he saw the impact on student and staff mental health, inspiring his run for the Pawtucket school board to “be proactive and supportive of the in-classroom teacher.” He also said Pawtucket schools are “at a critical juncture” and his experience will help ensure success of ongoing capital projects, such as the unified high school.
“I will be a supporter of making sure that high school gets built the proper way…,” Chellel said.
Tyler McFeeters, a resident of Weldon Street, said “the wheels started” on his interest in running for school board in 2016 when his wife began as a substitute teacher, a job she held until the pandemic shut schools down. Now, he said, he’s put the idea to run “into overdrive” with his own 4-year-old son starting pre-k in the district in September.
He said he is an “ardent fighter for student mental health services, keeping school breakfast and lunch free for every student, and pushing for more building upgrades,” and is in full support of the new unified high school proposal. He was previously a member of Pawtucket’s Juvenile Hearing Board and Mayor Donald Grebien’s Community Advisory Board.
Marsha Fernandes, a resident of Woodbury Street, has lived in Pawtucket for almost 20 years with her wife, Jaime, their teenage son, and their foster children. Fernandes has worked with children in the foster care system for more than 25 years and said a goal of hers is to broaden the awareness of children in the state’s foster care system, especially within the city. She is a co-facilitator for pre-service training for foster parents in partnership with DCYF, and a former PTA president at Fallon School.
“I’ve been an advocate for kids my whole adult life,” Fernandes told The Breeze. “Kids need someone who’s gonna fight for them, regardless of finances and political influences. I think both of those things factor into whether or not, especially kids in foster care, get what they need and what they deserve.”
She has a child with special needs and an individualized education plan in the district and “wants to fight for those kids who don’t have anybody to fight for them.” She said she strongly feels that “every child should have the advantages they need to become a healthy adult and receive a quality education.”
Long-time resident and former Pawtucket educator Jennifer Carney, of Enfield Street, also announced that she will be running in the primary.
“I am delighted to have an opportunity to once again serve my community and the youth of our city,” say Carney. “Having attended Pawtucket public schools as well as worked inside the schools and in the central office, I am confident that I bring the experience necessary to be an asset on the School Committee.”
She said she has a long history of personal and professional relationships with teachers and faculty in Pawtucket, and understands what teachers and students need.
Candidate Juan Pablo Barrera, a resident of Burgess Avenue, could not be reached for comment.