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School panel to be seated Dec. 16

December 9, 2013

WOONSOCKET – The city’s first-ever appointed School Committee will be formally seated two days before its first scheduled meeting, according to members of the City Council.

Council President Albert G. Brien said he expects the council to take up a resolution confirming the five members at its next meeting, on Dec. 16. The school board meets Dec. 18.

“It’s safe to say the five nominees will be confirmed and ready to sit in time for their first meeting,” he said.

The new members are Soren Seale, Jose Rivera, Susan Pawlina, Daniel Chattman and George Lacouture.

The appointees were announced for the first time by Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt during her inauguration on Dec. 3. They were chosen by a review committee that considered 28 applicants, half of whom were granted oral interviews before the final selections were made, according to Donna Coderre, principal of Leo A. Savoie Elementary School. She served as chairwoman of the review committee.

“There were 28 good applicants,” said Coderre. “I wasn’t initially in favor of giving up our right to vote for members of the School Committee, but this process brought out a lot of good people who wouldn’t have come out if they had to run for office. That was something many of the people who applied said to us.”

City officials had lobbied hard for the dissolution of an elective school board as a strategy for gaining greater control of the Woonsocket Education Department’s finances. The campaign began in earnest after the WED racked up sizable deficits during the two years that led up to fiscal 2011. The problem wasn’t merely the deficits themselves, but the fact that no one seemed to see them coming.

In May 2012, after a $10 million shortfall was deemed a “surprise,” the city announced that it had been pushed to the edge of insolvency. The WED fired its business manager, and the state appointed a Budget Commission to take control of the city’s finances and stave off bankruptcy.

Later that year, city voters also approved a referendum question abolishing the elective School Committee. Under the new system of seating the panel, members are chosen by the mayor, subject to confirmation of the City Council, a process that is supposed to make the WED more accountable than ever to City Hall.

The new School Committee may be one of the most ethnically and professionally diverse bodies of its kind ever seated in Woonsocket. It’s also a roster of names that appear to come from outside of established political circles and well-worn brand names in elective politics.

Here is a biographical snapshot of each of the appointees:

• Soren Seale is has a degree in law and employed by the Massachussetts Army National Guard. He was worked as a judge advocate general, or JAG, the military’s equivalent of a criminal prosecutor. He now works in personnel and has authority over multimillion-dollar budgets. He’s also a member of the city’s Assessment Board of Review, a position he is expected to relinquish before he’s confirmed for the school board. He and his wife, Deneese, have four children who are either already in the public school system or will be soon.

• Jose Rivera works in the wealth management division of Citizens Bank and has a degree in business from Rhode Island College.

• Susan Pawlina was active with the Woonsocket Taxpayers Coalition, a small-government advocacy group that’s emerged to oppose rising taxes and declining property values during the last several years. She has also been an active school volunteer and works as a certified nursing assistant.

• Daniel Chattman is a retired laborer who was active in Local 37 of the Iron Workers Union. Coderre said Chattman has worked as a foreman, a journeyman and a union representative.

• George Lacouture worked as a teacher and administrator in the local public school system for more than 40 years. He retired as head of the math department at Woonsocket High School and later worked as director of grants and assessments for the School Department at the McFee Administration Building. Coderre lauded him as someone who with a broad understanding of the challenges facing teachers and administrators.

The new School Committee, like the mayor and members of the council, will serve three-year terms before the election cycle reverts back to regular two-year intervals in 2016. The move will synchronize the city’s election cycle with that of the state, which is expected to increase voter turnout and save money by reducing the number of elections.

The committee made its selections for school board members after issuing an open invitation for prospective appointees. Coderre declined to say how many former members of the elective School Committee applied, saying it would be up to them to identify themselves as applicants. Former School Committeewoman Anita McGuire-Forcier, who ran unsuccessfully for City Council during the recent election cycle, is the only one to have done so.

In addition to Coderre, the other members of the selection committee included Finance Director Thomas M. Bruce III; David Lahousse, a restaurateur who owns Kay’s and other establishments; Jackie Perez, a worker at a local nonprofit agency; and Deacon Tom Gray of the St. James Baptist Church.

Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo

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