School Supt. Cylke announces retirement

School Supt. Cylke announces retirement

Board will conduct an extensive search for replacement

PAWTUCKET - Supt. Deborah Cylke, head of Pawtucket schools since June of 2010, announced last week that she will retire at the end of the school year. Now is the time to step down for both personal and professional reasons, said Cylke, who said she wants to spend more time with family, especially as "grandma" to her nephew's new baby.

Cylke, who dropped the surprise announcement toward the end of a school board meeting, said it was last October when she had to deliver a eulogy at the funeral of a friend who died at a young age. Events like that cause one to think that "maybe it's time to smell the roses after 38 years," said Cylke.

Over the next six months, Cylke told the School Committee, "you will have 110 percent effort from me."

The Breeze reported last August that Cylke had applied for the open superintendent seat in Newport over the summer, but was not one of three finalists for the position. Cylke said at the time that she did "inquire" about the Newport job, "mainly because it was out there and an opportunity," but once out of the running, she remained "committed to Pawtucket" and its many challenges.

Cylke earns $159,000 in base salary and another $51,247 in benefits. Though there has been some confusion about the terms of her contract, school board members say they believe she is technically under contract through 2016. Page two of the contract states that if in March of 2011, and every subsequent March after, the school board is satisfied with Cylke's performance, her contract would automatically be extended for an additional year beyond 2013.

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Cylke, a 1971 graduate of Seekonk High School who grew up in Pawtucket, told The Breeze that the job as head of the Pawtucket School Department has been a "very challenging" one, especially with the financial challenges that go with running local schools.

The outgoing superintendent said she is very proud of the job she and others have done since she arrived nearly four years ago. Among the collective successes, she said, have been:

* A renewed focus that's led to the district's 5th-graders outscoring the state average on writing.

* High school graduation rates that have improved dramatically due to numerous initiatives, putting local high schools on the brink of exiting state intervention status.

* Finishing fiscal years 2011 and 2013 with budget surpluses, and surviving 2012 by making $5.8 million in cuts. She pledged that school officials "will resolve" this year's deficit as well.

* Getting $8 million in health and safety upgrades started after Pawtucket citizens approved bonds to do so. Cylke said she is "very grateful" to city residents for approving the bonds, even though these repairs aren't the cosmetic upgrades that most people will be able to see.

* Getting a facilities master plan done for the potential future reconfiguration of city schools.

* And starting band and music programs at six schools, funded through grants.

"One of the saddest things I experienced when I got here was I couldn't believe that the music had stopped," said Cylke.

Challenges ahead will include addressing funding shortages, preparing for a new state test, and getting facility upgrades completed, said Cylke. Getting approval for "serious" upgrades and expansion will be a top priority in part because of the district's continued trend upward in student enrollment, said Cylke.

"We are out of space in the Pawtucket School Department," she said.

School Committee members said that Cylke's announcement came as a surprise. Chairman Michael Araujo said the possibility of her leaving "wasn't even on my radar," but he supports what he called a "personal decision."

Cylke has done a "credible job" as superintendent, said Araujo, doing well to deal with significant challenges with school building facilities and district finances. Araujo said he looks forward to working with Cylke for the rest of her time in Pawtucket.

School Committee member David Coughlin said he thinks Cylke has done "an outstanding job" during her tenure.

"Debbie walked into and inherited a toxic management environment," he said.

The School Department was placed in intervention status shortly after Cylke took the helm, said Coughlin.

"She had to manage that and she managed it well, in spite of limited funding, but she was most certainly not responsible for it," he said.

Coughlin said he and Cylke had their differences, but most if not all of them could be characterized "as healthy, robust, and challenging turf disputes over the line dividing superintendent versus School Committee authority."

The Pawtucket School Committee will soon launch an extensive search for a replacement, according to Araujo. He said it will be up to the committee whether a full-fledged search committee is appointed, but he himself would be in favor of assembling one.

"It's a very important job, and important to the city as well," he said. "I think the more people who get involved in the process, the better."