PowerPlayer: Cumberland Mayor Dan McKee

Monday, November 28, 2011


1) You're considered the education Mayor in Rhode Island. Can you tell us why you've decided education should be a top priority for an elected official?

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I believe that Rhode Island’s economic future is directly linked to the success of our public schools. This new edu-conomy will be driven by both political and educational leaders. Over the next few years there will be a tug a war between those of us who seek transformational change and those who will do everything they can to protect the status quo. Commissioner Deborah Gist has advocated for the changes that are needed to transform our public schools and it is critical that Mayors are prepared to partner with the Commissioner to help improve our public schools.

I am one of several mayors and municipal leaders in Rhode Island who have grown to understand that outcomes in our public schools will have a direct impact on our community’s economic health. Unfortunately, Rhode Island public schools join a handful of states in the country that are designated as high cost and low performing. According to a report presented by Dr. Bryan Hassel of Public Impact to the General Assembly in 2009, if our public schools reached national achievement levels our residents’ earning power would increase by as much as $500 million of annual earning power and if our schools reached Massachusetts’ achievement levels earning power in our state could increase by as much as $2 billion.

Until the General Assembly passed the Mayoral Academy legislation in 2008, Mayors did not have the legal standing to be directly involved in public education. It makes sense that if success in our public schools will drive new economic opportunities that Mayors need to be involved in transforming education in Rhode Island.

Closing national and global achievement gaps that currently exist in our public schools is right for our students and right for our economy. Mayors and municipal leaders can play an important part in closing these learning gaps by leveraging the change that is needed to transform our district public schools (Mayoral Academies being one such outlet).

2) Looking beyond Cumberland, what do you see as the three biggest issues Rhode Island faces today?

In my mind the biggest issues facing Rhode Island are 1) driving a new edu-conomy through the transformation of our public schools; 2) the need to strengthen the fiscal health of our cities and towns and 3) reversing the trend of a stagnant population growth in Rhode Island into one that is younger, smarter and has the potential to be more affluent will ensure a brighter future for our state.

Fiscal strength in cities and towns can be helped with legislation that helps communities manage the escalating costs of local pensions and after retirement health insurance costs but fair and timely equitable allocations of state budget funding is just as important.

We can immediately strengthen our cities and towns by making sure that all broad based revenue allocations made by the state are distributed timely and equitably. For example, both the school funding phase-in and the vehicle excise phase-out schemes are flawed.

For the past decade state allocations of hundreds of millions of dollars of vehicle excise phase-out funds have rewarded taxpayers who live in communities with highest tax rates and penalize taxpayers in communities with the lowest tax rates.

The General Assembly got it right when it passed a fund the student formula in 2010 but the delay in accelerating the entitled funds to communities like Providence, Pawtucket, Woonsocket, East Providence, Cumberland, Lincoln, Johnston and others representing over 75% of the residents in Rhode Island will prevent communities from controlling property taxes and will drive communities closer to the brink of financial failure.

3) Take us through a day in your life.

My day begins with reading and responding to email before checking in with my administrative assistant, Barbara Goodrich, about the day’s schedule and the day to day issues that need to be addressed.

My schedule varies from day to day but there are many constants in my daily interaction with the residents of Cumberland including on-going discussions on trash pickup, snow removal, drainage projects, road improvements, property taxes and communicating with our police Chief John Desmarais on matters of public safety. I speak daily with executive staff members and town council members about town finances and budget issues and protecting the town’s bond rating.

When I am not in meetings I keep my door open and welcome any visitors who might stop in to talk about what is on their minds. Last week a resident stopped in to question his water bill and made suggestions on how to set up the invoice so it would be easier to understand.

I save time in my schedule to work on long range planning and projects. Over the past six months I have been meeting with a consultant who is working on a consolidation plan of Cumberland’s four independent fire districts. In addition, I have been communicating with our planning department for the past several months to organize a meeting between education leaders and business entrepreneurs to discuss linking our education innovations with economic opportunities.

Over the past few weeks I have been concentrating on pension related issues via constant interaction with our pension board and health insurance and pension advisors to prepare for contract negotiations. We are currently working on three labor contracts including the police, rescue and municipal workers.

4) Where is Rhode Island a decade from now?

I believe that hope will return to our state through a process of constantly challenging the status quo and asking what things would look like if you had a clean sheet. In order to be successful I believe we need to get on a new set of tracks and avoid the temptation of following the status quo protectors just because it is more comfortable not to advocate for change.

Where Rhode Island ends up will depend on which set of tracks Rhode Islanders choose.

I would expect that if we choose to support the status quo protectors that Rhode Island will look about the way it looks today in 2022. If we choose to nibble around the edges of change I would expect that Rhode Island will continue to be the first in and the last out of national economic downturns and our public schools will show marginal improvement.

If we choose to embrace change and begin to reset our state and local government and education policies I think Rhode Island will be a better place for the effort.

An example of the tug of war between the status quo and transformational leadership will play out over the next few weeks as many will be advocating derailing the Mayoral Academy. Achievement First application while others will join in with Providence’s Mayor Angel Tavares, North Providence’s Mayor Charlie Lombardi, Cranston’s Mayor Allan Fung and Warwick’s Mayor Scott Avedesian and advocate for opening public schools that will set the bar high for their district schools to follow.

Time will tell whether Rhode Island will travel on a new set of tracks that will lead us to a better economy.

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5) Tell us something nobody knows about you.

I was a Boys Club state checker champion at age 10.

Quick Hitters

Role Model: Up close my dad and from a distance Coach John Wooden

Favorite Restaurant: Churrascaria Marques Grille & Restaurant, Cumberland, RI

Best Beach: New Smyrna Beach, Florida

Best Book You've Read in the Last Year: The Greatest Game Ever Played by Mark Frost

Advice for the Next Dan McKee: Life we would be less stressful if the next Dan McKee would take golf lessons at an early age and stay away from investing in the internet bubble.


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