BURRILLVILLE – Supt. Frank Pallotta began his career as an educator in 1970 as a teacher of neurologically impaired children for the Providence School Department.
Few would argue that a lot has changed in the field since that time, and in fact, there are a great many things – from technology and security, to labor relations and intra-district collaboration – that have changed since Pallotta first came to Burrillville in 2009.
And when the nine-year superintendent retires at the end of the month, he says he’ll leave Burillville schools better than he found them, and primed for continued success.
“Burrillville right now is in a good place and that’s one of the reasons that I made the decision,” Pallotta told NRI NOW this week.
He says it wasn’t always that way. A former teacher, special education director and assistant superintendent for the city of Providence, Pallotta had retired from a position leading the Lincoln school system in 2003, but it didn’t last long. He served as a principal at several Catholic schools starting that same year.
He first came to Burrillville as an interim superintendent, a position he was expected to hold for 90 days. But he soon saw he had something more to offer the town.
“I like challenges, and back then there was division between labor and management,” Pallotta said. “I discovered it was a wonderful community to work in, and we just had to establish relationships.”
He says he did so by taking a more measured approach, and listening to concerns of union management, forming lasting bonds that he remains very proud of.
“Whether rehabbing facilities or negotiating contracts, creating and developing curriculum or implementing technology, all of that doesn’t happen unless you have that trusting and transparent relationship with employees,” Pallotta said. “You can’t do anything without that.”
“I always make it a point to let teachers and staff know how much I appreciated what they do,” he added. “I firmly believe teaching is the most important job of the face of the earth and no one achieves anything without education.”
Pallotta said the key to forming good relationships is a belief in consensus and collaboration, rather than top down management.
“Everybody needs to be involved and empowered and when they are, they make an investment,” he said.
The superintendent says he took the same approach with town officials.
“I believe in transparency. It’s the taxpayer’s dollar that we must spend wisely,” he said.
“In my nine years here the Town Council has provided us with a fair budget,” he said. “We worked closely with them during the difficult years. They’ve been extremely cooperative. I think the reason is the transparency and being very open and honest in the process.”
Among the accomplishments established through those relationships was an initiative that started five years ago to upgrade schools. Pallotta presented the Town Council with a five-year plan that included safety improvements and cost $5.5 million.
“The Town Council funded that,” he said. “We upgraded all of our schools and incorporated school safety. On safety, we were far ahead of the curve.”
The improvements included creation of a keyless card system and double vestibules in every school so that visitors must be buzzed in twice. Upgraded security cameras were also installed, so that school officials could see things happening inside and outside of the schools from 25 different angels.
Thanks to a collaboration with the Burrillville Police Department, teachers were given active shooter training.
It was that relationship that allowed Pallotta to help address another major problem at town schools: substance abuse.
Pallotta worked with Burrillville PD to put together a Substance Abuse Task Force, which eventually resulted in the addition of new employees to address the issue both in and out of schools.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better police department. We have worked extremely closely together,” he said.
Pallotta said the schools currently conduct 12-13 fire and active shooter drills a year.
“We have things in place that other schools are just starting to put in place now,” he said. “Unfortunately, that’s the world we live in.”
“I think teachers and kids can feel very safe and we are still looking at further improvements,” Pallotta added.
To address the problem of growing district expenses, Pallotta formed a consortium with the public school districts of Lincoln, North Smithfield and Smithfield.
“The idea was to create better efficiencies and provide better opportunities for kids,” he said.
The superintendent has chaired the Northwest School District Consortium since it’s formation in 2010, and says that by sharing on services like consulting, and collaborating on bids and professional development, the participating districts have saved thousands. More recently, the group has used the relationship to help address another challenge: the growing expense of sending students out of district.
The schools have agreed to encourage students leaving their district to attend one of the other three schools, and to cap the amount paid to one another at $5,000 per student. If a child goes outside the consortium, the expense would be closer to $15,000.
“It’s a unique model. It’s worked extremely well,” Pallotta said. The town of Cumberland, he notes, has recently asked to join the collaboration.
The superintendent notes that the Burrilville School District also just recently finished the latest round of negotiations with organized labor, making it a good time to end his 48-year career on a high note.
“The last remaining piece is to get the budget approved,” he said of the Town Council’s fiscal deliberations, scheduled for Wednesday, June 13.
Now 72, Pallotta says he plans to stay busy in retirement, and will run for the North Providence School Committee, where he served from 1986-2006. He’s also planning a trip to Italy with his wife and extended family, including his two kids and four granddaughters.
Wife Maryann Pallotta serves as the CCD coordinator at Saint Anthony Church in North Providence, a position she plans to hold on to for one more year to make sure her husband’s retirement sticks. The verdict on that is far from certain: the superintendent readily admits he’s still open to short term work and would gladly take on another interim role.
Asked his hopes for the future of the district, Pallotta said, “I would hope that the relationships that we’ve established with the unions, elected officials, police department and community continue in a positive way. These are the things I worked hard to get in place for the next superintendent.”
He said he’ll miss the individuals he worked with, the kids and the community at large.
“I don’t know when I’ll see any of these people again,” Pallotta said.
The 2013 Rhode Island Superintendent of the Year notes that although 48 years is a long career, “I would do it all over again without thinking about it.”
“I just found so much happiness in being able to contribute and make changes,” he said. “As a profession, I would recommend it to anyone.”