Opinion: Accountability & Transparency: Your Money Matters!

by | Oct 13, 2022

Submissions are welcome – send to [email protected]. The last day to submit an opinion column (or letters to the editor) about the Nov. 8 election is Oct. 25, two weeks before election day (11/8).

By Justin Cahir

I decided to run for School Committee in East Greenwich when I first reviewed the school’s Strategic Plan (SP) last summer (EGPS ‘21-’24 Strategic Plan). The SP outlines the district’s goals, priorities, and initiatives for the next four years, 2021-2024. The School Committee references this plan often and bases many of their decisions on its purpose. It was fully approved in October of 2021. As I wrote for East Greenwich News in December 2021, “Opinion: Schools Falling Behind – Property Values Next? – East Greenwich News,” it’s relevant not only for EG parents, but all taxpayers of this town. There is over $600K of your tax dollars being spent on various initiatives tied to the Strategic Plan and few measurements of success to show if any of them are working.   

The lack of accountability and transparency not only in the plan itself but the infrequent updates the community has received since its approval is one of the main reasons that drove me to run for School Committee. We are now 25 percent of the way through the 4-year plan and there are very few, quantifiable metrics to measure success in the SP. There has been one update on tracking metrics in a “data dashboard” YTD (Data Dashboard Presentation 6-7-22 SC) to track success this past spring, and it’s questionable if the school even has the infrastructure to measure this data. 

One example of this is the Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS). On the EGSD website, MTSS is described as “using data to make evidence informed and student-centered decisions about teaching and learning” (East Greenwich School Dept. – MTSS (egsd.net). It goes on to state that over 30 educators from all schools and many disciplines will assist with implementing the framework. This sounds like an amazing program! Not only that, but it was also one of the #1 listed initiatives in the school department’s ‘21 Strategic Plan’s Priorities. The school budget allocated $166,244 of ESSER II funds (COVID learning loss related) which will be exhausted after FY ’23, and we had a district known administrator leading this great program and overseeing its success.  

I wish I could tell you how it’s going. There have been two updates on this program YTD, (MTSS 1/18) and (5/3 link not working). Neither show what the criteria for entry is, what the status of the middle school or high school program is, what the success rate has been for MS and HS, or who will run this program now that the leading administrator overseeing MTSS has moved on to a new role. At the meeting in May, next steps included from the presentation: MTSS district goals ‘22-’23 and “data work.” Despite reaching out to program administrators, I have not been successful in locating any of the data the program is designed to be using to make “evidence informed” decisions. 

If MTSS hasn’t gained traction, there are important questions that need to be answered one year into a two-year funded plan. What go forward plan is there to support not only our struggling students but students who need more of a challenge? How exactly was the $166K attached to the MTSS initiative used? In which ways could it have been used to implement tangible outcomes? For example, could we have added on one or two additional mental wellness coaches or interventionalists for our children who so desperately need the support? 

In my professional career, I have initiated and executed over 250 initiatives from beginning to end, ranging in size, budget, and timing. The very first thing I do for every initiative is determine how we will measure success. Without this, how do we know if we have made a good investment? How do we know if what we’ve developed is beneficial for our kids, families, and teachers? How else do we determine what changes need to be made if something is not working? How do we know if YOUR tax dollars are being put to good use in our schools? Despite what some might say, colleges still base acceptance on Math and English acumen. For a district that has seen a downward trend in these subjects over the past few years, now is not the time to get lackadaisical on our initiative management.  

In addition to measurements of success, in my professional role, we assign owners to every aspect of the initiative and provide a detailed timeline of when these milestones should be met. If there is a risk of delay, it is communicated early and often. Within the district’s Strategic Plan, I see no owners aligned to any of the initiatives that make up the $600,000 worth of investments. How is there any accountability if we don’t even know who is responsible to execute?  

If I am elected to the School Committee, I will ensure parents and taxpayers are updated often on how their money is being spent and if the initiatives aimed at making students’, teachers’, and parents’ experiences better are making a difference. I will revisit the Strategic Plan and ensure the initiatives that are aligned to our priorities are measurable and we can realistically define success. I will ensure we have owners aligned to each of those initiatives, so there is accountability for the success or needed improvements of those programs. I can ensure we are not left in the dark wondering if we are getting a positive return on investment on our tax dollars and, more importantly, if it is having an actual impact on our students. I respectfully ask for your vote on Nov. 8 so I can help implement this transparency!

Justin Cahir is a candidate for East Greenwich School Committee. Peter Carney and Theresa Daly also contributed to this opinion.

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October 18, 2022 8:49 pm

Thank you, Justin! I am really looking forward to following this. For many, to understand how MTSS is being utilized in schools today you must first understand ESSER funding and the new SEL (Social Emotional Learning) additions. While RTI (Response to Intervention) is part of an MTSS framework, the inverse is not true. MTSS provides more. MTSS addresses behavior issues, provides support and recognizes the need to incorporate outside influences (yes, really). While we await the answers you seek Jason, here is a recap of how schools can use ESSER stimulus funding for MTSS. The legislation requires that at least 20% of the funds that school districts receive (and 5% of the funds that states receive) from the legislation — must address instructional loss using evidence-based interventions that respond to students academic needs, it also must address social-emotional needs (wellness, school climate, and your child’s social and emotional competence will be measured and logged through survey assessments like DESSA (a part of the CASEL framework). I hope parents follow this closely and if EG is using the funding for SEL assessments, that parents are given their notice and opt-outs (per law and policy) .

The remaining funding can be used for almost anything that is an allowable expense from ESSA, IDEA, or other federal education legislation. Specifically, the legislation says that school districts can address instructional loss through:

(i) administering and using high-quality assessments that are valid and reliable, to accurately assess students’ academic progress and assist educators in meeting students’ academic needs, including through differentiating instruction;

(ii) implementing evidence-based activities to meet the comprehensive needs of students;

(iii) providing information and assistance to parents and families on how they can effectively support students, including in a distance learning environment; and

(iv) tracking student attendance and improving student engagement in distance education.

For school districts that are looking to improve their RTI / MTSS practice, these allowable expenses are a great way to start. Very much looking forward to the transparency on this very important issue. Thank you again!


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