Opinion: The Case for New Voices on School Committee

by | Oct 28, 2022

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].

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October 29, 2022 8:00 am

Excellent piece highlighting the difference between proactive leadership and reactive leadership! We have seen what reactive leaders has resulted in over the past 2 years, learning loss and division with no tangible plans for improvement. There are important decisions to be made this election cycle that will affect the futures of the many families in EG. I, for one, will be voting for Peter Carney, Justin Cahir, and Theresa Daly who have a history of and will continue to deliver PROACTIVE leadership to our community.

October 29, 2022 11:52 am

The more I read these political “Opinions” the more I believe EG NEWS especially with comments from their readers invoked by the candidates on who they will vote for, EG NEWS very possibly could be in violation of Revenue Ruling 2007-41.

Organizations that are exempt from income tax under 501(a) of the Internal Revenue Code as organizations described in Section 501(c)(3) may not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.

Elizabeth McNamara
October 29, 2022 12:07 pm
Reply to  RAY RICCIO

We have run this by our lawyer and he said as long as they are labeled “opinion,” it does not violate the Revenue Ruling.

Stephen J. DiGianfilippo
Stephen J. DiGianfilippo
October 29, 2022 8:20 pm

I have communicated regularly with one member of the School Commitee and always find him to be very thoughtful and informative. I also was pleased that our children were back in class sooner than most, and I generally have been happy with the EG teachers and administrators.

There is, however, room for improvement. The material on the summer reading list needs to change; our children should be introduced to classic literature rather than books based upon today’s hot topics. We also should focus more on fundamentals: For example, rather than being addressed by an author who writes about the inequities of our criminal justice system, our 5th graders should first be taught about that system and how it functions on a basic level.

We need to reassert control over our curriculum which I learned was essentially turned over to the State in that the Town is now required to purchase one of the few State-approved curriculums that meet certain “diversity” requirements.

Finally, even though our School Committee is supposed to focus on local school issues, one cannot deny the potential impact of the current members’ party affiliation. Perhaps a member aspires to higher office or just sincerely embodies (and wants to advocate) the views and positions of today’s Democrat Party. Either way, unchecked power can lead to results that are out-of-step with the majority. For this reason, I agree that we need more political diversity on our School Committee.

Eugene Quinn
October 31, 2022 8:37 am

Mr. Carney,

As one of the committee members you are arguing should be replaced, I feel a response is warranted.
I have served on the school committee for four years now, and I served on the finance subcommittee for a year before that. This is our 44th year paying property taxes in EG, and the total runs into several hundred thousand dollars. That is a significant investment that I want to see preserved.

I strongly disagree with your implication that parents with children are underrepresented on the current committee. One could just as easily argue retirees living on a fixed income are underrepresented. Besides, we had a foster child go through Cole and EGHS so we have certainly had the experience of being responsible for a child in the system. As a former professional educator, I believe everyone in the community has a stake in the quality of our schools, and as an elected official I believe I should represent everyone.

I also disagree with your suggestion that party affiliation somehow results in lock-step behavior. I scrounge my own data ( https://eugenequinnforegschools.org/#R51 ), perform my own analytics ( https://eugenequinnforegschools.org/#RFO ), and reach my own conclusions independently. If I think a particular policy direction is a good for the district, I support it. If not, I oppose it regardless of how my colleagues on the committee vote. See Rhode Island Ethics Commission advisory opinion 2022-7 ( https://ethics.ri.gov/2022-7 ) for an example.

I would not characterize the relationship between the school committee and the current town council as one of ‘consistent disagreement’, though that was definitely the case with the previous council. I understand and respect the positions of current council members, and if I was in their shoes I would probably make many of the same decisions that they do. By design, there is a natural tension between the school committee and council because only the council can levy taxes; the school committee has to rely on the council to authorize an annual transfer. My position requires that I be an advocate for the schools. I believe we shouldn’t have to starve the schools to fund the town, or vice-versa, so we have to reach a compromise.

I do believe in long term planning, and that was the reason I voted for the supplemental request. In the long run limits on the financial dynamics are determined by maintenance of effort and the 4% levy cap. Maintenance of effort is a major concern because it defines the minimum transfer or ‘floor’ for every future year. The 4% levy cap is a concern because it defines the maximum transfer or ‘ceiling’ in every future year. Anything that reduces the transfer this year has the ripple effect of reducing both the ‘floor’ and ‘ceiling’ for all future years.

I supported the supplemental allocation request to raise the ‘floor’ and the ‘ceiling’ for future years. I’m concerned because the 100 year historical levy growth rate is about 8%. I think we can live with 4% (or less) if there is not much growth or inflation, but it’s going to be a delicate balancing act that will require careful long term planning, not just reacting to what is happening in the current year.

In the ongoing (civil) discussion of how to best manage our finances (including fund balances), the town manager, the school superintendent, the two finance directors, the school committee, and the town council are all in the loop, and I believe we all have the best interests of the town and schools at heart.

With regard to our performance on the RICAS, it’s mostly a measure of how well our curriculum aligns with that of Massachusetts, because the test items are developed using Massachusetts curriculum standards and calibrated against Massachusetts students taught using that curriculum.

Section 2.2 of the 2021 RICAS Technical Report ( https://www.ride.ri.gov/Portals/0/Uploads/Documents/Instruction-and-Assessment-World-Class-Standards/Assessment/RICAS/2021_RICAS_Technical_Report.pdf?ver=2022-08-16-152613-850 ) states that both Rhode Island and Massachusetts adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in 2010. In 2011, Massachusetts modified its mathematics standards in a way that “merges the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics with additional Massachusetts standards and other features”. Rhode Island did not transition to the Massachusetts framework until 2021, which I would argue explains why the difference between RI and MA scores is greater in mathematics.

This suggests that if East Greenwich were to develop its own local curriculum standards as you propose, it would guarantee lower RICAS scores. A glance at the Technical Report should convince you that it is not feasible for East Greenwich to develop a test aligned with custom local standards.

So a locally developed curriculum inevitably leaves you without a measure of the success or failure of the program that can be compared to other districts or states.

Eugene Quinn, Ph.D.

Peter carney
Peter carney
November 1, 2022 8:44 am
Reply to  Eugene Quinn

Thank you for the comment Dr. Quinn. I’ve enjoyed our several conversations about school topics over the past 18 months or so and appreciate your perspective as a long-time EG resident and taxpayer. I have heard you state your own concern about the budget-centric contentiousness between Town Council and SC a few times during past SC meetings. Some Town Council members have confided the same concern to me and to others I know so there’s little doubt it exists, in my opinion.
Regarding RICAS, I have heard curriculum alignment be discussed by the SC at a past meeting or two, but the question parents want to know is what is Barrington Middle doing that generates 20 point and 14 point better scores than Cole? And why are neither Hanaford nor Eldredge performing in the Top 15 versus their peers? These peers face the same challenges EG does with curriculum alignment and RICAS is just as new to them as it is to EG. Standardized testing is of course not the be-all, end-all metric, but it’s an important one and we should be keenly interested in how we can elevate this performance category. And, my piece mentions no comparison to Massachusetts testing performance…just comparison versus RI peers.
Lastly, I discuss the “do you have kids in EG schools” topic in my piece because it is definitively the top question asked of me when canvassing by district parents and general EG voters alike. That tells me it’s important to EG voters. I do see a difference in your experience versus other candidates as you did support a foster child though graduation at both Cole and EGHS. I will have a third graduate from Cole this year and a 4th enroll there next year. I appreciate your perspective, but am also very confident with mine…as a parent of children who have experienced the Covid pandemic in different ways and as a committed EG pubic schools family.

eugene quinn
November 5, 2022 10:55 am
Reply to  Peter carney

Mr. Carney,
Thank you for sharing your perspective, and for serving on a School Improvement Team (SIT). School committees are required to have a program of continuous improvement, but the work of actually accomplishing that happens in the district, and I think SITs are the right way to do that.
I’m not denying that differences exist between the school committee and council (and between the school district and town). For me they involve my concerns about preserving the quality of our schools over the long term. A student entering kindergarten this year will be in the system 13 years. I worry about making sure the schools will be at least as good as they are today when that student graduates. These concerns are based on the fact that the 100 year growth rate in the levy is close to 8% but recently a 4% cap on levy growth was enacted. The issues on which I differed from the council positions this year have to do with fine-tuning the levy growth in a way that allows us to stay in the narrow band of 0-4% growth (that is required by law) beyond the current year.
I was a community member of the finance subcommittee in 2017 when the school committee was laying the groundwork for a lawsuit against the town to force them to adequately fund the schools, so I have seen acrimonious relations between the school committee and council first hand. I consider it a lose-lose proposition if relations deteriorate to that point, and with this council we have never had to seriously consider that kind of last resort action.
I must respectfully disagree with your claim that you made no comparisons to Massachusetts because the scoring mechanism for the RICAS contains an implicit comparison to Massachusetts. I have been studying the MCAS and how it is calibrated since 2015, when I did a summer research project with some of my students ( https://eugenequinnforegschools.org/SGP_research.html ). At the outset I had no idea how complicated the process of producing a rigorous, evidence-based mechanism to track student performance over time is ( https://www.ride.ri.gov/Portals/0/Uploads/Documents/Instruction-and-Assessment-World-Class-Standards/Assessment/RICAS/2021_RICAS_Technical_Report.pdf?ver=2022-08-16-152613-850 ). And while I feel I have a good understanding of what that mechanism is in the case of MCAS, there are aspects for which I find the ‘why’ part somewhat bewildering. Fortunately, I know some psychometricians who are willing to share their expertise (including Dr. Stephen Sireci https://www.umass.edu/education/people/stephen-sireci ).
Space limitations make it impossible to fully examine the entanglement of MCAS and RICAS; we should get together for a coffee some time and continue our discussions.
With apologies for the (unavoidable) technical nature, here is a quick overview. The MCAS standardization involves two distinct processes: determining the Item Response Theory (IRT) parameters and setting the cutpoints for reporting categories (Not Meeting, Partially Meeting, Meeting, Exceeding). The sole purpose of the former is to map individual students onto a standard bell curve based on their answers to the test items.
An individual student’s ‘ability’ is defined as their position on this bell curve, and designated as ‘theta’.
For RICAS, the first step in determining where a student falls on the parental report is to estimate theta. For each test item, the ‘2PL’ model (described on page 41 of the 2021 RICAS Technical Report https://www.ride.ri.gov/Portals/0/Uploads/Documents/Instruction-and-Assessment-World-Class-Standards/Assessment/RICAS/2021_RICAS_Technical_Report.pdf?ver=2022-08-16-152613-850 ) gives a formula for computing the probability that a student with a specific theta value will correctly answer the question using two parameters, ‘difficulty’ and ‘discrimination’. These are estimated as part of the calibration and the estimates appear in Appendix F of the Technical Report. The ‘difficulty’ values are in the same scale as ‘theta’, and the 2PL formula always gives a student whose theta value matches the difficulty parameter a 50% chance of answering the question correctly. All of the student’s answers are used to estimate their theta value using the iterative computational procedure described in Section 6.2.2. Once we have an estimate for theta, the scaled score is computed by the procedure described in Section 6.2.4.. This is just a straight line fit with theta on the horizontal axis and the test-specific slope and intercept parameters listed on page 46. For the Mathematics Grade 6 test, you multiply the student’s estimated theta value by 19.870 and add 500.165 to get the scaled score. So a student whose ability is right at the median of the calibrating population (theta equal to zero) gets a scaled score of 500.165. Keep in mind that the calibrating population was pre-COVID, as described in the Preface of the Technical Report (‘pre-equating’). There is simply no valid way to get an apples-to-apples comparison if the populations being tested were not taught using the same curriculum standards and the same teaching methods. Pre-equating seems to me to be the least bad option, but read the Preface for a longer discussion.
The second part of the process involves setting the cutoff values for classifying students. Three cutoffs were established for the MCAS NextGen ELA and Mathematics test: the population mean score on the 2017 MCAS, approximately 1.5 standard deviations below the mean, and approximately 1.5 standard deviations above the mean. This means that for a population of students identical in ability to the 2017 population, taught using the same curriculum by the same methods, we expect 6.7% of the population to be classified as ‘Not Meeting’ standards, 43.3% to be classified as ‘Partially Meeting’, 43.3% to be classified as ‘Meeting’, and 6.7% to be classified as ‘Exceeding’. In terms of theta values, the cutoff points are zero, approximately -1.5, and approximately 1.5. The exact values are test dependent and appear in Table 2-1 on page 13 along with the scaled score cutoff values. These values make small adjustments so that the cutoffs all come out at the same scaled scores: 470, 500, and 530.
Finally, the takeaway here is that RICAS classifications contain a strong assumption that the test population has been taught using the Massachusetts curriculum.
The long awaited 2022 RICAS scores have been posted, and the average scaled scores for grades 6,7, and 8 on the Mathematics exam were 502, 499, and 509 respectively for East Greenwich, and 505, 508, and 504 for Barrington. Massachusetts posts Raw-to-Scaled Score Conversion Tables ( https://www.doe.mass.edu/mcas/results.html ) that suggest we are talking about a difference of one or two points on the raw score. This could be one or two more dichotomous questions answered correctly, or one or two additional points on the multipoint items.
I think this could easily be accounted for by small differences in the alignment of the math curriculum with the Massachusetts standards (including implementation). In East Greenwich, math standards are a work in progress. I believe the answer to the question ‘what is Barrington Middle doing better’ is mostly that their curriculum is somewhat better aligned with the MA standards at the moment.
While this all might seem far too complicated and arbitrary, there is a large body of research and experience that suggests that something like this is necessary if you want to track achievement over time reliably.
What should be done? The MCAS and Accountability Interpretation and Action Guide ( https://www.doe.mass.edu/mcas/2022/results/action-guide.pdf ) has a bulleted list of suggested action items if achievement is low across multiple areas. The first bullet point says “Assess current instructional materials to ensure that they are high quality and standards-aligned”. I think this would be a good place to start, keeping in mind that it is early in our adoption of such standards.

Anne Musella
Anne Musella
November 2, 2022 1:58 pm

Dr. Quinn, thank you for the articulate, reasoned response. In particular:

“I do believe in long term planning, and that was the reason I voted for the supplemental request. In the long run limits on the financial dynamics are determined by maintenance of effort and the 4% levy cap. Maintenance of effort is a major concern because it defines the minimum transfer or ‘floor’ for every future year. The 4% levy cap is a concern because it defines the maximum transfer or ‘ceiling’ in every future year. Anything that reduces the transfer this year has the ripple effect of reducing both the ‘floor’ and ‘ceiling’ for all future years.

“I supported the supplemental allocation request to raise the ‘floor’ and the ‘ceiling’ for future years. I’m concerned because the 100 year historical levy growth rate is about 8%. I think we can live with 4% (or less) if there is not much growth or inflation, but it’s going to be a delicate balancing act that will require careful long term planning, not just reacting to what is happening in the current year.”

It is critical that our local elected officials and community members recognize and understand the floor and ceiling within which the school district is forced to operate. I hope that the Town’s appetite to engage in long-term planning in collaboration with school officials will grow.

November 4, 2022 2:28 pm

Maybe it’s just time for a school committee in this town to think about the students first. Stop writing opinion pieces about what one party or person did or didn’t do. Nobody cares, all it does is show how inflated your egos are. Your role is to serve students. Why not start by setting an example for the students. Tell us why you would be a fit for the position and not why the others are unfit to serve. In such a small town, there should not be any political affiliation for the school committee. The only affiliation should be to the students. Remember that public service is the highest honor, and from what I have read in the plethora of opinion pieces published is not very honorable.


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