R.I. city's 'icon' takes helm in North Stonington

The new superintendent of schools in North Stonington, Peter Nero, in his office at Wheeler High School Friday, says he wasn't much of student himself.
The new superintendent of schools in North Stonington, Peter Nero, in his office at Wheeler High School Friday, says he wasn't much of student himself. Sean D. Elliot/The Day Buy Photo

North Stonington - Peter Nero was a terrible student.

It's one of the first things the new superintendent of schools will tell you about himself - and that he's a die-hard Yankees fan.

"I was, like, the world's worst in high school," he said. "It wasn't because I was stupid - it's just that there were more important things for me to do. Like have a good time."

Of 653 students in his graduating class, he was ranked 610th.

Nero made the leap from class clown to a career in education the day he decided to go to college. Stuck doing odd jobs several months after finishing high school and watching friends become aspiring engineers and lawyers, he simply made up his mind one morning.

"It was like I closed the door on that person," he said. "I said, 'That person is dead and gone from my life.'"

After previous superintendent Natalie Pukas announced her retirement last year, the search for her replacement began in earnest in January, Board of Education Chairman Bob Testa said. The board voted in May to hire Nero and his first day in North Stonington was last month. Nero said he will move from Cranston, R.I., to Westerly to be closer to work.

A Cranston icon

After a couple of years at a community college, Nero was accepted to Rhode Island College, where he said he "did it all," serving as president of his fraternity, president of the interfraternal council, treasurer of his class and secretary of the technology education club. And upon making the dean's list there for the first time, he bragged to his disbelieving mother.

"She hauled off and kicked me, and she said, 'What did you do to piss the dean off that you made his list?'" he said.

Nero graduated with a bachelor of science in industrial arts in 1976. He would later become a teacher, then assistant principal, then principal, then assistant superintendent, all in his hometown.

Nero had spent 31 years in the Cranston Public Schools system before becoming superintendent in 2009.

"Peter is an icon in Cranston. He really is," said Frank Lombardi, Nero's friend of more than 40 years and a member of the Cranston School Committee. "He fulfilled every expectation as a superintendent. Having gone through the superintendent search to replace him, Peter was the standard by which everybody else was judged."

Lombardi said Nero's legacy is one of transparency and openness, as well as dealing with some difficult times in the Cranston school district. Nero inherited a $9 million deficit when he became superintendent, forcing him to cut what Cranston, in a 2007 lawsuit filed against the city for being underfunded, called "nice-to-haves" - a high-achieving students' program, various art and music programs and middle school sports.

Nero made the tough cuts, Lombardi said, as well as making the call to move the sixth grade back to the elementary schools, solving an overcrowding issue and saving a couple million dollars. Today the budget has a bit of a surplus. By 2014, Lombardi said, Cranston schools can look at putting those eliminated programs back in the budget.

"Peter left the district better than what it was when he found it," Lombardi said. "There's a light at the end of the tunnel, and it's all under Peter's leadership that we did that."

Drawn to the area

Nero was born in 1951 in Providence and grew up in what he calls a "tough neighborhood," moving to Cranston at age 12. He wears his blue-stone Sigma Iota Alpha fraternity ring and keeps his yellowing high school commencement brochure, dated June 11, 1969, in a corner of his office; near that, a painting of Cranston High School East and his prom tuxedo rental receipt - for $13.65. He wears thick, black-framed glasses and keeps his silver hair slicked back.

He is a creature of habit: Every day at 4 p.m., he works out for an hour on the elliptical machine. Of course, he said, that will change when the school year starts up.

When Nero first heard back that the North Stonington superintendent spot was open, it seemed an act of serendipity - the name of one of his favorite movies, along with "Mystic Pizza," which he and his wife of 32 years, Linda, saw together in 1989. They've been making trips to the area ever since, taking long walks to admire the scenery. During one looping drive last December, Linda turned to her husband and said, "Wouldn't it be nice to live in this area?"

Nero saw the job listing in March and immediately called his wife.

"I was looking for a game-changer in my life," he said. "I was looking for something different."

Nero has seen a fair share of change in his life, or at least a good amount of shaking up. His 18-year-old son, Michael, now a student at Rhode Island College, was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at age 4 - though Nero proudly insists he is "a typical jerk, knuckle-head teenager like everybody else." He and wife had shuttled to and from Boston for years for various fertility treatments before they finally had their son.

On the day one of Nero's close friends died of cancer, Linda had an aneurysm; six months later, she underwent surgery.

But it is precisely those hardships that have taught him how to deal with problems, he said. That experience may come in handy as he enters a district recently mired in controversy.

Controversy, budget woes

Pukas, the previous superintendant, retired in June after 12 years in her position amid accusations that she had misused a district credit card. A forensic audit is under way, looking at several years of credit card charges and school budgets.

And North Stonington's Board of Education has been plagued by a perception of dysfunction of late, one that board member Walt Mathwich, who served as spokesman for the superintendent search committee, said he cannot explain but hopes will be aided by the arrival of Nero and his reputation.

Of 21 candidates for the job, Mathwich said, Nero ended up being the committee's first choice.

"He's got a proven record of success," he said. "Our hope is that he can continue that in North Stonington."

Testa, the school board chairman, said Nero already has jumped right in: On his first day on the job, the Board of Education sought his input in cutting $300,000 from the school budget. Taxpayers later rejected that budget proposal, as they had done the previous two for the current fiscal year. The town's Board of Finance is now seeking taxpayer input via an online survey.

"He was the best qualified, proven leader with the most experience, especially with many of the issues we're dealing with regarding the budgetary concerns," Testa said. "I would expect that he's going to continue to be the leader and the innovator that he was in Cranston. I wouldn't expect anything different."

For his part, Nero has no big plans as of yet.

"I'm just trying to get the lay of the land," he said. "I'm not going to make any rash decisions and say, 'This is the way that we used to do it.' It's not going to happen."

Nero will transition from heading up a staff of about 2,000 to 115, and from about 10,860 students to fewer than 800. He hopes this will allow him to focus more on the education side of things rather than the administrative.

"I can spend more time with kids, do things that I want to do," he said. "The phrase I use is called 'the tyranny of the urgent.' You have to spend a lot of time on the urgent things, but not the things that are real important. I'm hoping this job will allow me to spend more time on the important things than the urgent things."

a.issacs@theday.com

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