athornebrooke@ricentral.com

EAST GREENWICH--The East Greenwich school committee met on Tuesday to hold a public workshop designed to iron out proposed adjustments to its policies concerning field trips, school-related trips and student activity accounts.

It was the latest in a long series of events designed to make sense of the fallout left in the wake of a general guidance document issued earlier this year by RIDE, which found that the practice of charging fees for field trips was illegal, and left the district’s existing policies in disarray.

To date, the school committee has made admirable progress in addressing the issue and fixing its budgetary practices to accommodate for funding field trips, though the process has been slow. Further, the committee has been peppered with the complaints of worried parents who feared their children may lose opportunities to go on field trips such as the famous excursion to Washington D.C. The worry was one that the committee hoped to assuage.

“It is not anyone’s intent to take away field trips,” Committee member Anne Musella said, underscoring a point that has been made before and highlighting the mission of the committee to preserve the district’s reputation for offering top-notch learning opportunities.

“We are in limbo right now,” Musella said.

Despite their efforts, which have shown considerable progress, the school committee was reminded by a member of the public that some field trips for sixth-graders were already lost this year, and that haste must be made to rectify the situation.

A key problem is the current absence of an official definition for what constitutes a “field trip.” And the committee at times became self-admittedly “lost in the weeds” of its own jargon, and the linguistic gymnastics necessary to appropriately recognize some ontological difference between the myriad types of trips that may or may not be allowed proved difficult to unpack. To this end, making haste slowly is the best option that the school committee has in addressing the legal quagmire of how to account for field trip fees and how they appear in the district’s budget.

Committee member Matt Plain stressed the necessity of transparency and accountability in ensuring that the district owns its responsibility for the budget and anything associated with it.

“The liability has to lie with us, we don’t get a pass.” Pain said. “The only thing we do is govern school programs. The burden falls on us to ensure that it is delivered in an appropriate manner.”

Thus far, the school committee has struggled to find a way to provide such transparency in how it seeks to organize field trip funding and, importantly, distinguish between school field trips and school-related trips that are not part of the curriculum, such as those put on by student clubs.

Committee member Eugene Quinn spoke to the issue of adequately sussing out what was within and not within the district’s budgetary authority, saying, “The mechanism is there, but we have to do it right.”

Committee vice-chair Lori McEwen argued that some trips could be rethought, while maintaining that the inclusivity of trips must be maintained and anything resembling quid pro quo in regards to student access to trips must be avoided, to which committee chair Carolyn Mark wholeheartedly agreed that nothing resembling a “pay-to-play” scenario could be implemented.

The school committee currently is at an impasse between finding legally permissible ways of justifying the language of whether or not a trip is a “field trip,” and upholding the spirit of the guidance to ensure equal access to all trips for all students.

“We need to do this in a non-discriminatory manner,” Plain said of the issue.

For now, the committee has mostly ironed out how it will approach and fund necessary field trips, but has agreed to put the status of what constitutes a school-related trip on brief hold, pending further discussion. It is hoped, however, that the at times exruciating process will yield rewards not only to the district, but also throughout the state in terms of experience and clarity of the legal issues surrounding school-funded trips.

“This answer will help other districts,” Musella said.

The committee will hold a first read of the proposed policy next Tuesday.

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