Call & Times

School to be dedicated for Mayor Menard this Saturday

Woonsocket Middle School will be named in honor of Susan D. Menard

- By RUSS OLIVO rolivo@woonsocket­

For more than a century, city voters had been going to the polls to elect mayors on a regular basis, but in 1995 they did something they’d never done before: They elected a woman.

Former Mayor Susan D. Menard – the city’s 29th – was not only the first female chief executive in history, but also the city’s longest-serving, remaining in office seven consecutiv­e terms spanning 14 years.

And that was only half her time as a public figure; she’d previously served a decade on the City Council and four years on the School Committee.

“I can honestly say, even now, after some of the ups and downs, I loved every minute of it,” says Menard. “I miss it. I miss the challenges.”

Though she still resides in the same house on Marian Lane, Menard has lived a life of comparativ­e anonymity since she last held office, but she’ll be drawn back into the spotlight for at least a few moments on Saturday when officials rededicate the twin middle schools on Hamlet Avenue as the Susan D. Menard Middle School Complex.

A new sign bearing the name has already been unveiled at the site, but members of the City Council have invited Menard to a casual ceremony for an official christenin­g at 11 a.m.

“It’s a beautiful sign, and a great honor,” says Menard.

The ceremony marks the culminatio­n of a plan set in motion in October 2015, when the council unanimous- ly passed a resolution to rededicate the schools in Menard’s honor. The resolution was introduced by former Councilman Garrett Mancieri, who says he did so on behalf of a constituen­t who prefers to remain unidentifi­ed.

Because the middle school is one of the signature accomplish­ments of the Menard era, the facility is a fitting site to hoist her name for posterity, says Mancieri. But the idea is to recognize Menard’s long commitment to public service and the broader range of her achievemen­ts over the years.

“We tossed around a lot of ideas,” said Mancieri. “We could only pick one thing. We all kind of decided this was her major contributi­on to the city, her biggest thing.”

Thanks to her advocacy and leadership, Mancieri says, voters approved an $80 million bond referendum to finance the project, which opened in 2010 to replace an antiquated structure on West Park Place that once held the dubious distinctio­n of being the most populous middle school in New England.

“I think it was long, long overdue,” said former Planning Director Joel Mathews, who served as chairman of the school building committee during the Menard administra­tion. “It had been a top priority in the capital improvemen­t program for 20 years.”

The middle school project was exceedingl­y complicate­d and fraught with political obstacles, recalls Mathews.

Back-to-back mill fires at a portion of the French Worsted mill complex opened up an avenue for the city to cobble together a parcel of land big enough to build the schools – a mixed blessing, it turned out. There were three separate property acquisitio­ns from private owners required to assemble the constructi­on site, but the parcel was polluted with industrial waste, an issue that gave pause to state legislator­s, whose seal of approval was needed to obtain the requisite state financing.

“A lot of people were very nervous and scared about us going in and cleaning it up,” said Mathews. “There was a lot of work that went into the project before the ground was even broken.

“It wasn’t a walk in the park,” he adds. “It took some doing.”

At the time, the state was footing 84 percent of the bill for local school constructi­on projects, but lawmakers balked when Menard presented them with the prospect of an $80 million school building. At the time, the state was reeling from a tremendous shrink in revenues as it struggled to cope with the effects of the Great Recession. The city was under strain, too, but it would have taken a crystal ball to know then that Woonsocket itself would be flirting with bankruptcy in just a couple of years.

Even Menard had mixed feelings about the project.

“I worried constantly because of the cost and if you remember back then we had to go through quite an ordeal with the General Assembly,” recalls Menard. “It was just a horror.”

Ultimately, however, state lawmakers signed off on the full reimbursem­ent for the project.

At that point, Menard knew it was a now-or-never situation. The funding formula meant that the city was on the hook for just 16 cents of every dollar that would go into the school, and she urged voters to take advantage of the deal.

If they didn’t, Menard worried that the city might be stuck with an obsolete school building for many, many more years.

“If we hadn’t put it in it might have been the last time we would have gotten that huge reimbursem­ent and there never would have been a new middle school,” she says.

The school may be remembered as the marquee project of the Menard era, but many also look back on those years as a time of generally good financial health and tax stability. Menard was loath to raise taxes. When the city’s finances imploded and the state put a Budget Commission in charge of the purse strings, however, some looked back on those increase-free tax years as a lost opportunit­y to build a cushion for the rainy day.

But hindsight is 20-20, even for Menard. She often reflects on the past, she says, and allows that there are “things I did right, things I probably would have done differentl­y had I know what the financial future would be.”

Overall, she says, she’s pleased by her legacy and considers herself lucky. She also stresses that her accomplish­ments weren’t a solo venture – it would have been far more difficult to get things done had she not had the help of some “great, great people working with me.”

Today, Menard spends much of her time doting on her grandchild­ren, especially Jacob, 12, and Nathan, 11. They live most of the time with their father in Newton, Mass., but it was the untimely death of their mother, Carrie – Menard’s daughter – that changed everything for the former mayor.

Carrie was just 31 years old when she passed away as a result of the unintended interactio­n of prescribed medicines. Her death came just a couple of months before the period when candidates for public office must reserve a spot on the ballot.

There might have been an eighth term for Menard had she declared her candidacy, but at that point the path forward was clear, and it didn’t include another stint in public office. She made a pledge to her daughter to care for her surviving children and it was the beginning of a new life.

Menard also has a son Kevin who has a family in Las Vegas that includes two more grandchild­ren, Matthew, 12, and Colin, 10, with whom Menard also spends a good deal of time. Kevin is a retired Air Force pilot who has seen action in the Mideast.

“When my daughter died it came to a big halt,” says Menard. “Then I retired. It was the right thing for me, and for my family.”

City Council President Dan Gendron says Saturday’s program will be simple, with remarks from a few guests. Jeff Gamache, a host at radio station WNRI (AM-1380/FM 95.1), will emcee the event, but as of yesterday Gendron said the program was still a work in progress.

“There will be a few speakers, but the real tribute is going to be the last thing – the dedication of the sign,” said Gendron. “It looks phenomenal. It is a nice tribute and an appropriat­e honor that we are about to bestow upon her.”

 ??  ?? Susan D. Menard
Susan D. Menard
 ?? Photos by Ernest A. Brown ?? Above: The new Woonsocket Middle School opened in 2010. It was a key achievemen­t for the administra­tion of former Mayor Susan D. Menard, who served as mayor from 1995 to 2009. The twinschool complex will be officially named for Menard in a ceremony on...
Photos by Ernest A. Brown Above: The new Woonsocket Middle School opened in 2010. It was a key achievemen­t for the administra­tion of former Mayor Susan D. Menard, who served as mayor from 1995 to 2009. The twinschool complex will be officially named for Menard in a ceremony on...
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