By Elizabeth F. McNamara

In an opinion released to the East Greenwich School Committee this month, State Education Commissioner Ken Wagner said it’s not legal for school districts to charge a fee for school-related field trips.

The opinion strikes at the heart of how East Greenwich has been funding part or all of most school field trips, with at least part of the cost being covered by parents. That comes in the form of a $5 fee to pay for a bus ride to the State House, or a larger fee to cover the cost of a trip to the Pequot Museum in Connecticut, or the $1,200 cost of last year’s 8th grade field trip to Washington D.C.

Under the commissioner’s opinion, all those trips would need to be funded by the school district, though the opinion did leave room for fundraising for school trips, just so long as students weren’t required to meet some sort of quota or specific amount.

The opinion (RIDE EG Field Trip Policy) lays out three ways to fund field trips:

  1. Districts may budget funds for trips, so long as the trip is part of the instructional program and all students have the same ability to attend;
  2. Fundraising for trips is permissible to supplement district budgeted funds, so long as individual students do not have mandated fundraising targets that must be met as a requirement for participation; and
  3. Individuals may be charged fees for a trip, but only for trips that are not organized by the district using district resources, including district-funded staff time.

“I’m proud of the commissioner. The commissioner could have punted and he did the right thing. He did the right thing legally, morally, ethically. And it’s consistent with the law,” said School Committee member Matt Plain. (Commissioner Wagner is leaving his job later this week.)

Four years ago, at his very first meeting as a member of the School Committee, Plain voted against a school-sponsored trip that came with a student price tag. He has continued to vote against all such trips that have come before the committee. After years of discussion about the policy, the committee submitted a request for advisory opinion from the commissioner last September. In absence of a response, the School Committee’s policy subcommittee recently started rewriting the field trip policy.

“I think the policy subcommittee anticipated some of the language here and is working hard to conform to it,” said Committeewoman Lori McEwen. “The policy subcommittee still has work to do.”

Committeewoman Anne Musella, who heads the policy subcommittee, spoke to the fears some parents have expressed about changing the policy. 

She noted that trips taken by Eldredge and Hanaford kids relied on a total of $8,000 in family contributions. At Cole, the Washington D.C. trip cost a total of $121,000 for the 85 students who participated (about a third of the 8th grade class). The total family contribution for all trips at Cole in 2017-18 was $154,000, Musella said.

“The Washington D.C. trip was most of that,” she said. “I don’t want people to panic.”

She added, “I think we all want to make all of it work. I think we just have to define things properly and do it the right way. And ultimately more people may be able to participate. If families are paying anyway, we’re not trying to take anything away. Perhaps the funding can just go through a different mechanism.”

One idea is to let parents know at the beginning of the year that students will be going on X number of trips during the year at a cost of Y, and asking for donations to help cover that cost.

“I think all will become clearer when we get a recommendation from the policy subcommittee. We will get more clarity … when we see the next draft,” said Chairwoman Carolyn Mark.

A roller coaster at the Lake Compounce amusement park in Connecticut.

There were questions raised about end-of-the-year trips at Cole and the high school, like the 8th grade trip to Lake Compounce or Senior Week activities, all of which come with a fee for students. Since the School Committee is only asked to approve overnight trips or trips to noncontiguous states, those end-of-year trips don’t require School Committee approval. But, Plain said, that doesn’t mean they get a pass if they charge a fee.

“Just because it doesn’t come to us, doesn’t mean it’s permissible,” he said.

Others were less comfortable with that stance for trips planned this year well in advance of the commissioner’s opinion.

“I’m not comfortable voting against things that are already in place for the end of the school year,” said Committeeman Jeff Dronzek.

Musella said last year’s trip to Lake Compounce cost families a total of around $9,400 and that she hoped this year’s trip could still happen. Perhaps, she said, the funding mechanisms at the school can be shifted so that there’s no out of pocket cost.”

For Plain, the district was the ultimate winner.

“I’m quite confident that the community will collectively convene to ensure that we keep doing great things,” said Plain. “This is going to be a positive for the district because, for the first time, we’re going to expand learning opportunities to everyone on an equal and non-discriminatory basis…. I’m proud that we’re standing up and we’re going to find a way to continue to offer these expanding learning opportunities in this manner. I’m very happy that we’re doing that.”

The policy subcommittee next meets May 14.

Find more stories about the field trip policy here: 

Field Trip Policy Raises Questions of Equity and Law

Washington D.C. Trip Fails to Gain Approval

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