First School Committee meeting without Mele a somber occasion

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The Johnston School Committee on Tuesday held its first meeting since the passing of Janice Mele, but her presence was still strongly felt.

The board elected its new chair and vice chair – Robert LaFazia and Joseph Rotella, respectively – through matching 4-0 votes, and moved through the agenda to keep some semblance of normalcy.

There was no ignoring the void, though. The members left Mele’s chair empty, the spot adorned with a flower and her nameplate.

“I thank my colleagues for their support this evening. It’s a tough position to take over because,” said a visibly emotional LaFazia. “I told myself to hold back. It’s going to be almost impossible to fill her shoes. As far as I’m concerned, she always will be chair for this committee.”

As the committee moved to the requests and acknowledgements portion of its agenda, District 5 representative Susan Mansolillo said the committee members are “very happy” about the Town Council’s Monday decision to rename the Johnston High School library in Mele’s memory.

“We thought that was a wonderful thing,” she said.

Rotella began to speak about the recent slew of events schools have been hosting, but said he would be remiss if he didn’t acknowledge Mele’s impact on the district.

“I mean, obviously, we all miss Janice,” he said. “And I’ve sat down and tried to put some thoughts on paper. She’s just going to be missed. That’s really all I have to say.”

LaFazia said the next few weeks – which include, among other events, the senior awards ceremony and Johnston High School graduation – will be difficult without Mele.

“I knew it was going to be a tough night,” he said. “It’s very tough to take the place of an individual that was very loved by all of us. She wasn’t just a colleague or a friend – she was like a sister. We had moments where we disagreed and we had moments we always agreed, but we always came up with what we needed to make sure that whatever we did was for the kids. She loved the kids.”

LaFazia remembered that Mele would always put others before herself, even after her retirement a few years ago from her career as a librarian at St. Thomas School in Providence. He said she knew that other representatives were busy at work, so she would take on tasks for them to lend a hand.

“That’s what it was all about,” he said. “She would not miss any events. If she could not be there, she’d send her apologies. Especially this time of year, it’s very tough because we always went together [to graduation season events] from her house. She was the granite cornerstone of this community. She always had open arms to everybody that was new that came on.”

The committee gave Mele a salute of their own as well. Members unanimously approved the renaming of the Johnston School Committee Scholarship as the Janice D. Mele Memorial Scholarship in another tribute to their friend and colleague.

“She certainly was a champion for our students,” Superintendent of Johnston Schools Bernard DiLullo said, closing his report later on in the evening. “She was a champion for teachers and administrators and I think the best that we could possibly do for her to honor her memory is to do all the right things for our students, and that certainly is what my commitment is, and I know that’s how this committee feels. She will be sorely missed.”

LaFazia knew Mele would be missed, but she will never be forgotten as a dedicated member of the district.

“I’m going to end my comments with this remark that her daughter, Amanda, made. Amanda stated that, when her dad [John ‘Jay’ Mele] died, half of mom’s heart went with him,” he said. “When Janice passed, she took a part of our hearts with her.”

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