Education is McKee's 'North Star'

Posted 3/11/21

By JOHN HOWELL What's Dan McKee all about? Tom Ward, who has closely followed McKee since the new governor was a Cumberland Town Council member and worked in his family home heating oil business, used the word "moderate" more than once as he spoke to the

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Education is McKee's 'North Star'


What’s Dan McKee all about?

Tom Ward, who has closely followed McKee since the new governor was a Cumberland Town Council member and worked in his family home heating oil business, used the word “moderate” more than once as he spoke to the Warwick Rotary Club in a Zoom meeting Thursday.

Ward is the founding publisher of the Valley Breeze newspapers, which have roots in Cumberland/Lincoln and have expanded with five newspapers.

“We had to hunt him down,” Ward said of McKee, who as Cumberland councilman and then mayor did not actively seek news coverage with staged photo-ops and media events. “He was focused on getting the job done.”

Ward said McKee’s father started the Cumberland Boys Club and “that’s where he [Dan] grew up.” Later, he owned a racquetball club where Ward said McKee learned what it takes to own and operate a small business. As a candidate for lieutenant governor and on the job, McKee made small business his platform.

But his “north star,” as Ward termed it, “is education.”

As mayor of Cumberland, Ward said McKee sought to address the performance of the town’s schools. Instead of cooperation, the school department and the teachers union insisted he had no business intruding and told him to butt out and stick to managing town business.

“The silos of schools stuck in his craw,” Ward said. It was then that McKee started the mayoral academies, which are charter schools. The academies, the first of which is Blackstone Valley Prep, started with elementary grades, growing each year with an addition of a grade through high school. The first graduating class is this year, said Ward. There are also academies in Woonsocket and Providence.

While Ward said the mayoral academies have been “extremely successful,” they have become a target for teacher unions that see them sucking dollars and students out of municipally run schools. For the moment, McKee has the backing of the unions for championing teachers as essential personnel and making the vaccination available to them. Reopening schools is a McKee priority. But Ward doesn’t believe teacher backing will carry into the next election cycle, especially as McKee deals with Providence schools that are now being run by the state. Ward called Providence schools “a mess.”

Rather than working with McKee, Ward can see the unions “sticking a shiv in his side” and throwing their support to one of the other likely candidates for governor in 2022. Ward, who wrote many editorials for the Breeze newspapers, did not hesitate to suggest that McKee rally support of parents in seeking to right schools.

“He should take the case to the people if he wants to be [elected] governor,” Ward said.

Ward said that the difference in the 2018 Democratic primary, in which McKee narrowly beat Aaron Regunberg, is that Regunberg “didn’t realize to cultivate the grassroots” where McKee had support.

Ward gave McKee high marks for his handling of Cumberland finances. He said the town was on the verge of bankruptcy due to the unfunded liability of the police pension when first elected mayor in 2000. In addition, the town had four separate bargaining units, each with its own contract. McKee was able to merge them, streamlining the system and saving the taxpayers. During his tenure as mayor, Ward said the town climbed eight notches in its bond rating and amassed a $25 million reserve fund.

Ward finds McKee’s appointments consistent with his moderate approach and surrounding himself with people he has come to know and trust. He was surprised by his selection of the former head of Black Lives Matter Rhode Island, Corey Jones, as policy adviser, given he is more aligned with progressive Democrats. Yet he said the appointment is emblematic of McKee’s approach to understand differing points of view.

“He wants to sit down with people he disagrees with,” he said.

Contrary to Gina Raimondo, who Ward see as “trying to make it to the next level [of political office],” he said McKee is not looking to move on to Washington and if anything finds himself in a position he didn’t expect.

When McKee visited the Warwick vaccination clinic a week ago Monday, he was informed that Ward had been invited to address the Rotary Club.

“Ask him about the yellow bag,” McKee said, not giving away what that was about.

Ward laughed when the topic was brought up. He explained the newspaper holds a yellow bag day. Five to six hundred bags are handed out for a community-wide cleanup day.

Ward said McKee and his wife, Sue, joined in the drive as mayor and continued to participate during his time as lieutenant governor.

Ward surmised that since McKee brought up the topic, he must be planning to participate now that he’s governor.

“That’s the kind of guy he is.”

McKee, education