By Justin Cahir
I am a Rhode Islander, born and raised, and a product of the Providence public school system. As a graduate of Classical High School, I’m still proud to call it my alma mater. As my wife and I started a family and had the means to choose where we would like to raise them, we did what many new families do, research. What did we find? Barrington and East Greenwich had the two top school districts in the state. Besides the great education system, we have the restaurants on Main Street and are minutes from the water. We made the sensible choice to move to East Greenwich, right?
Many do not realize that East Greenwich residents pay the sixth highest property tax rate in the state at $23.43 per $1,000 assessed value, just over a percent behind the highest paying Providence (see the chart HERE). In 2020, our town spent $35M+ on the school budget. For a top-notch education, this might seem well worth it. Just a few short years ago, Cole Middle School was ranked #1 in the state according to U.S. News and World Report. Our hard-earned tax dollars were working and proving the decision many made to move to EG was correct. Along with the great schools, we experienced skyrocketing home values, nearly a 20 percent increase in the last year alone! Nothing to be concerned about, right?
High taxes have been a sacrifice many are willing to incur, that is, until the quality of our education began to decline.
Cole is no longer ranked #1 in the state; it is not second or third, either. According to U.S. News and World Report, Cole has plummeted to 22nd place replaced by Barrington, Wickford, Chariho and Tiverton, to name a few. In addition, only one of our elementary schools broke the top 20. East Greenwich High School is still ranked #2, but this will ultimately change for the worse if our elementary and middle schools are not adequately preparing our young people for the road ahead.
Some may say this drop in performance is COVID-related and that the problem reflects a nationwide trend. They might argue that communities need to expect less in the wake of a life-altering pandemic. However, these rankings are based on 2018-19 math and reading assessment data from the U.S. Dept. of Education EDFacts initiative. Rhode Island submitted their data in August of 2020 for the 2018-19 school year which reflects how well our students were performing in reading and math before the disaster that was remote learning.
One might think, even if our education system is slipping, we still have our high home values. Don’t retire just yet. According to many sources, such as The Wall Street Journal (“Good Schools, Bad Real Estate,” 2010) and The Brookings Institute (“Housing Costs, Zoning, and Access to High-Scoring Schools,” 2012), there is a direct correlation between school rankings and property value. On average, buyers are willing to pay $50 more per square foot for homes in top-rated school districts, compared with homes served by average-rated schools. For a 2500 square foot home, that is a $125,000 difference in home value. Right now, the market is highly competitive and home values are booming, but that will not last forever. Historically, we have relied on our school system to help keep East Greenwich as a destination for new families. A few cursory conversations with successful realtors in the area highlighted that neighboring North Kingstown, with its lesser real estate tax bills on average and “2021 National Blue Ribbon” high school, has garnered more of their buyers this past year than they have seen in the past. While East Greenwich real estate remains very strong for sure, a return to verifiable educational achievement rather than assumptions and reputation is critical for both our community’s children and our wallets.
Whether one has school-age children or not, we all have a personal stake in the future of our school system. Shouldn’t we be holding our elected school committee members accountable for a strategy bringing our schools back to a place of excellence? The EGSD 2021-2024 Strategic Plan was recently finalized but in comparison to the 2015-2020 Strategic Plan, there is a stark difference between the specific, actionable items laid out in the prior plan compared to the vague generalizations in the new one. It makes it difficult to determine exactly how the plan is to provide the necessary remediation. I encourage everyone to compare the two. East Greenwich’s long-held excellent reputation will only last for so long. We need to get our schools back on track before it is too late. Let’s make sure our future graduates are always proud to call East Greenwich their alma mater.
Justin Cahir lives in East Greenwich and has one child in EG public schools and one in preschool.