By Peter Carney
This is a very important election cycle for East Greenwich schools…no question about it. It is my hope that all our town is very engaged in the School Committee race because there are far-reaching issues that will affect EVERY EG school district family and EVERY EG taxpayer for many, many years to come. I highlight this because during this campaign I sometimes hear from residents with no children in the EG schools that the School Committee elections are not something they are focused on. But I am quick to reply that it absolutely should be! With more than 60 percent of our town budget going to the school department and perhaps even more money with a $100 million school building project on the horizon, I ask every voter to look closely at each candidate and consider who is best suited to help manage the next four years for our schools … a 4-year period that may very well chart the course for East Greenwich schools for the next 50 years. And with 7 candidates for 4 open seats, the voters of East Greenwich have more choices for School Committee than they have had since 2014!
In the wake of the past 2+ years that saw unprecedented educational disruption and learning loss, multiple budget disagreements with the Town Council, and a major building initiative moving forward, there is a lot to consider.
Let’s talk about performance. There is both anecdotal evidence from conversations on the campaign trail and empirical evidence from our most recent standardized testing that the performance in our schools has waned, unfortunately. Parents and taxpayers want to know that their elected officials recognize this and are actively seeking improvements. The talking points of the incumbent candidates have largely been focused on social and emotional support improvement for our students rather than performance improvement. I agree that the former is a necessary focus, but how many of the precious hours of each school day do we shift away from instruction when that is the key to elevating our students’ performance and closing learning-loss gaps? And the candidates we trust to fix these issues should be the ones who were willing to talk about them while they were exploding as a problem (Link: Letter to the Editor: Expand In-Person School to Middle, High Schools – East Greenwich News). I am proud to have been a vocal advocate for more pragmatic Covid policies during the pandemic. And when it finally came time to return Cole and the High School back to full in-person learning in April 2021, the first question following the presentation by Superintendent Meyer came from our School Re-opening Committee chair who asked what Covid infection metrics would trigger a RETURN to hybrid. By this point, more than 85 percent of surveyed District parents supported a return, irrespective of Covid metrics (April 2021 District survey). The School community had moved on, but our School Committee had not.
The empirical evidence on school performance that I mentioned comes from the Spring 2021 state-wide testing. While we celebrate our high school’s success in this analysis as #1 in R.I. in SAT proficiency, we must also acknowledge the wide gaps that have developed in other levels of our District. For example, our state standardized testing results (RICAS) for Cole Middle School showed a 20- and 14-point proficiency gap, respectively, between EG (50 percent ELA / 39 percent Math) and top-ranked Barrington Middle (70 percent ELA / 53 percent Math). Gaps in our elementary level were present against peer schools as well, with neither Eldredge nor Hanaford ranking among the top 15 across the state. We must do better, and I know we can. I am eager to engage our administration on plans to eliminate those gaps and raise “Blue Ribbon” banners in multiple EG school buildings in the next four years.
On the budget front, the past several years have seen consistent disagreement between the Town Council and School Committee on requested funding allocations. This may not have had high visibility among our parents and taxpayers, but as an attendee for each of the last two years of joint Town Council / School Committee budget meetings, it sure has been interesting. Over the past few years, the School Department had developed a Fund Balance (some fiscal year surpluses, Covid reimbursements, and a big chunk from a health insurance change, among other aspects) that at its height exceeded $3 million. The Town Manager and Town Council in turn pushed back on fulfilling the totality of each year’s new budget request from the Town’s funds and had the School Committee dig into the fund balance for various amounts as dividing lines were clear about how much fund balance should be maintained by the School Committee. The disagreements have continued following the RI Department of Education’s (RIDE) cut to EG’s projected 2022-23 state aid allocation just a few months ago. Rather than awaiting their 2021-2022 budget books to close and see if a surplus could be used (a surplus is projected by the Town Manager) to cover the gap left by RIDE, the School Committee formally asked for $800k from the Town Council. In turn, the Town council voted 5-0 to not meet the request before the results of the 2021-2022 budget year are finalized.
That’s a lot of information there, but I share it because it tells a story about balancing the delivery of a quality educational product and the sensitivities of running that budget with the tax burden already so high on our residents. I appreciate that sensitivity as the parent of 3 EG SD students (one at EGHS, Cole and Eldredge, respectively) and as a taxpayer with a property tax bill that is quite a bit more than it was in 2016 . . . and it wasn’t small then! So, who on the School Committee is watching district investments closely to make sure there is a good reason to continue them? Who is analyzing where the $900,000 of federal Covid money has gone to be able to defend maintaining those investments once that money goes away after two years? Based on the past two years of budget debates and based on this campaign . . . none of the incumbents seem to be. Yet these topics have been at the forefront for School Committee candidates Justin Cahir, Theresa Daly, and me.
In line with the budget topic is the advancing plan for a major school construction investment for East Greenwich that is expected to be upwards of $100 million. The impetus for this being a definite need for building improvements and expansion and a nearly 50 percent cost-share from the state (RIDE). There are big decisions looming, including over the fate of Eldredge Elementary. For those concerned about this aspect of the road ahead for this project, if elected, I would advocate that every stone be turned over to try to keep school children at Eldredge. I believe there is value to investing in our neighborhood schools, even if that investment doesn’t hit the maximum RIDE cost-share calculation. As a neighbor said to me last week, “not all change is good. It wouldn’t be the same around here without seeing children walking to and from that building every day.” And as we consider who we want to guide the School District through this huge project, I think it wise to ask the most common question I get when out canvassing and talking to voters: “do you have kids in EG schools?” As shared earlier, I do…three. But if we re-elect the school committee incumbents, we will have nearly half the school committee (3 out of 7 members) with no kids in EG schools. It will be up to the voters of East Greenwich to decide if that is the committee composition they want charting the course for this enormous investment.
The last topic I’ll mention is leadership. I consider a position on the School Committee to be a leadership role, not another arm of the growing educational bureaucracy here in our state. The RI Department of Education (RIDE) has expanded its influence via legislation over the past several years and it is time to find ways to push back. East Greenwich didn’t earn its reputation thanks to guidance from RIDE – which has yet to get Providence schools back to self-governance and which oversees an overall education system that stands in the lower half of national rankings – East Greenwich earned its reputation thanks to great families, great students, great teachers and staff and effective local governance. It is time for East Greenwich Schools to lead again . . . not only in performance rankings at all levels, but also parent satisfaction, teacher satisfaction, special education support, safety, inclusion, school community pride on and off the field, and fiscal responsibility. With polls open now at Town Hall for early voting, I humbly ask you to vote for Peter Carney for East Greenwich School Committee today or on Election Day, Nov. 8.
This is a very important election cycle for East Greenwich schools.
Peter Carney is a candidate for School Committee and a parent representative on the School Improvement Team for East Greenwich High School. For more information, please visit www.petercarneyri.com or email [email protected].