School committee

atrubia@ricentral.com

NORTH KINGSTOWN – When former education commissioner Ken Wagner ruled earliest this year that schools can no longer request a fee from students or parents for field trips, districts across the state were left without a known funding source for out-of-school activities. 

Now, North Kingstown is one of several districts sending resolutions requesting a change to the state law that was the genesis for Wagner’s ruling. 

The law Wagner referenced in his guidance states: “No public school official or public school employee shall, for any purpose, solicit or exact from any pupil in any public school any contribution or gift of money or any article of value or any pledge to contribute any money or article of value.”

In his ruling, Wagner cited the equity of students as the reason behind his decision, calling into question the practice of requiring fees for field trips when certain parents or guardians might not be able to afford it. 

The North Kingstown School Committee has had several discussions about the new field trip policy, stating that, after Wagner’s ruling, trips would have to be funded through outside organizations, such as parent-teacher organizations (PTOs) and booster clubs. The committee also said that field trips would be drastically reduced because of the new ruling. 

School Committee Chair Gregory Blasbalg explained on Tuesday that the resolution, which the committee unanimously approved, would be sent to the town’s General Assembly representatives and Governor Gina Raimondo, requesting that the state law Wagner referenced be changed so that the district could request funding from parents, but only from those who could afford it. 

“We’ve had many, many discussions on the impact of the former commissioner’s decision regarding school field trip funding,” Blasbalg said. “This is a resolution to be sent to our General Assembly representatives, as well as the governor and other entities that are involved, with a suggested change to the Rhode Island state law that is essentially the root of the problem, because the commissioner was simply interpreting a law that’s been there forever but no one really asked about before.”

The requested change in the law, Blasbalg said, would essentially allow the district to ask for funding from parents, provided that an alternate source of funding would be provided for parents who weren’t able to afford the trip. 

In order to make this change, North Kingstown’s resolution requested that a sentence be added to the law in question, stating that the prohibition “does not apply to school-sponsored field trips or events in which parents can be asked for funding as long as the district or another source provides funding to any student whose family cannot afford the cost of the trip.”

Blasbalg said that this change is “getting at the heart of what everyone was looking for” in Wagner’s decision, giving schools the ability to request fees from parents while allowing students who can’t afford the fee to still attend the field trip. 

“We understand that no child should be missing out on these educational opportunities that field trips provide,” he said. “At the same time, it seems kind of crazy that the district can’t say if you can contribute $20 for your kid to go, that’s what the cost per kid will be. And hopefully, that helps us deal with a much smaller gap that we have to make up for either through PTOs or outside organizations.”

The resolution also states that Wagner’s ruling could have “unintended consequences” such as severely reducing extra-curricular opportunities, driving families away from public schools and undermining a district’s ability to fulfill a component of the basic education plan, which requires “a school-based program of extra-curricular activities.” 

“In essence, this means that once in a lifetime opportunities for students, such as band and choral trips, competitions and other important programs will be reduced or eliminated from public schools in Rhode Island as districts cannot afford the costs of fully funding these enrichment activities,” the resolution states. 

While several other districts have sent similar resolutions to the General Assembly, Blasbalg said North Kingstown’s was more broadly worded to encompass specific extra-curricular activities, such as band and choral trips, as well as out-of-school competitions. 

“I want to make sure that it applies not only to field trips but other types of events, like band trips,” Blasbalg said. “We don’t want a change to be so narrow that it only applies to field trips.”

Blasbalg also said that the senators and representatives of North Kingstown in the General Assembly were aware of the resolution, adding that he hoped it would be taken up in the upcoming legislative session. 

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