Above: School Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Mark.
By Elizabeth F. McNamara
The School Committee last week (Nov. 19) voted 6-0 to add a $50,000 line item to the current budget for field trips, with a corresponding $50,000 revenue line for anticipated donations and fundraising dollars.
The aim of adding the money was to help persuade administrators, teachers and parents that field trips will continue as they have in past years. In June, the district changed its field trip policy to reflect an advisory opinion from the state education department (RIDE) stating that parents could not be charged fees for field trips centered on curriculum since public education in Rhode Island is supposed to be free.
The policy change upended decades of tradition, where parents were asked for $5 here, $20 there, to help pay for a trip to the zoo, or a play. On rare occasions, the fee could be hundreds of dollars or even more than $1,000, for a trip such as the 8th grade trip to Washington D.C.
The committee made the decision to add the $50,000 field trip budget line in response to feedback from members Anne Musella and Alyson Powell, who said there was widespread confusion about the fate of field trips and that already nearly three months into the school year nothing had been sent out to families regarding the policy change.
Musella said there was so much confusion whether or not field trips were going to happen that she suggested suspending the policy for the year, giving the district time to do a better job rolling it out.
“We don’t want to have a chilling effect on field trips,” she said. “Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, the community, including teachers and staff, are not clear with the new process.”
Committeeman Matt Plain countered that idea, saying the committee couldn’t just decide not to implement a policy.
“When something’s part of the Basic Education Program, you can’t just suspend it. You strive towards it,” he said. “We can’t say we’re suspending our efforts to deliver those components. We just have to do it.”
Chairwoman Carolyn Mark also said she did not think the committee could just decide to suspend the policy. She said conversations about field trips were happening on the PTG level.
“I’m feeling there’s a little bit of a disconnect in terms of the feedback I’m hearing from this committee and the general understanding amongst administrators, teachers and parents about field trips this year,” Mark said. While acknowledging the “sincere worry” some had that students would not be able to enjoy field trips the way they had in the past, Mark said she heard differently at a meeting of several PTG presidents earlier in the month.
“The very direct question was asked, ‘Are you aware of any field trip in your school buildings that have happened in the past that are in jeopardy this year?’ There was unanimity in the room that the answer was no,” Mark said. “There are many trips planned. They were moving forward and that in fact they were on track with their fundraising.”
That seems to be the case at the elementary schools, where PTGs have traditionally helped to provide money for field trips.
According to Eldredge Principal Dan Seger, the PTG there has done a terrific job raising money for field trips.
The PTG there held a “Day of Awesomeness” in October where each class was able to spend part of a school day playing in bounce houses and other activities. All student were able to participate but parents were invited to donate toward the day to a fund for future field trips. (Here’s the fact sheet from the PTG that went home to Eldredge parents: ‘Day of Awesomeness’ details.)
“So far, the trips that have come up, our PTG has stepped up and covered the costs,” Seger said. He said the PTG had also done a good job keeping parents informed, he said, through a robust Facebook page. He said he’d gotten questions last year about field trips after the RIDE advisory opinion was issued but that he hasn’t been hearing from parents about field trips so far this year.
While having school PTGs or other groups raise money for trips is one way to help with funding, the School Committee had hoped parents would be asked by the schools or the district to consider donating to help pay for field trips. Until this year, parents were asked for a fee. Now, the idea was, they could make a free will donation instead. But, as of now, there has been no appeal sent out to parents.
In an interview after the meeting, Supt. Victor Mercurio acknowledged there had not been any district communications to parents about the new policy, but he noted there had been a forum on the proposed policy last spring, video from which was posted online.
“Those discussions about planning for fields trips are taking place on the building level,” Mercurio said, adding he would take responsibility for confusion over the policy.
“There were things that should have been communicated,” he said.
Chairwoman Mark also said communication on the new policy could have been better.
“We had a lot to figure out in terms of the mechanics,” she said. “Do I wish we could have had it all figured out … at the start of the school year? Absolutely.”
In particular, she said she wished information had gotten out there sooner that families could contribute directly to the district or a specific school in support of field trips. To that end, Director of Administration Greg Booth said at the meeting Nov. 19 that he would be sending out a district-wide communication about field trip fundraising “by Thanksgiving.”
The information could be welcome for some parents, including this Cole parent who asked to remain annonymous.
“I still think there’s a lot of confusion about how things are being funded. People have been hesitant to make donations because they don’t know what the money will be used for,” he said. “I do think there is certainly a disconnect and many people are confused.’
Become a part of a movement – join the EG News community by making a donation today! We are a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to keeping East Greenwich informed. Use the Donate button below or send a check to EG News, 18 Prospect St., E.G., RI 02818. And, thanks!