Officials: Only most important field trips might move forward

Officials: Only most important field trips might move forward

CUMBERLAND – School officials are at least temporarily “putting the complete kibosh” on field trips for all grades above the elementary level in 2019-2020, said School Committee member Mark Fiorillo on Monday, but are hopeful of finding some solution for bringing some back in the future.

At a meeting of Fiorillo’s policy and procedures subcommittee Tuesday, members expressed frustration about new guidance from the state prohibiting districts from charging students for field trips.

“We’ve got to find a way as a School Committee with this state law to make this work,” said School Committee Chairman Paul DiModica.

Just the annual trip to Washington D.C. costs some $250,000, said DiModica, and schools would be lucky to raise a fraction of that to keep it going this year.

At the elementary level, most field trips are day trips and PTO groups do significant fundraising to pay for them, meaning saving those trips is simply a matter of funneling the PTO money through the district. Districts are also allowed to request a $10 donation per student, which will help offset costs at the elementary level but won’t do much for big trips in the upper levels.

“We need to figure out how we make the elementary school model work at the other schools,” said Fiorillo. “Unfortunately, it’s not going to work with the big trips.”

Karen Freedman said her opinion might be an unpopular one, but if the purpose of departed Commissioner Ken Wagner’s conclusion on field trips was for inclusion of all students, “I kind of don’t like the idea of trying to skirt around it.”

Schools’ top priority is achievement, she said, so it might be time to step back, evaluate exactly what they’re dealing with, and perhaps narrow field trips down to those that are important to the district’s goals.

“I know it’s an unpopular opinion, but we’ve got to make our choices,” she said.

If it comes down to soliciting money for field trips to Six Flags or a trip related to music education and the arts, said Freedman, “what are you going to choose?”

She and others suggested that while many field trips have value, others, such as trips to Six Flags or Canobie Lake Park, are completely outside the scope of instruction.

On why they’re canceling trips for 2019-2020 when many other districts are keeping them for now, school officials said numerous attorneys have agreed with Wagner’s assessment that Rhode Island law doesn’t allow them to charge students for field trips. They said other districts are taking a significant risk of legal action by keeping approved trips on the school calendar.

Fiorillo said he expects to have the school field trip policies revised within two weeks, saying he intends to slash them way back. Changes to the field trip policies will also impact other policies, including the volunteer policy and chaperone policy. Crowdsourcing will also be revised and moved into the fundraising policy.

Complicating the matter of keeping field trips is that it counts against the district if both teachers and students take an unexcused absence to go on a trip, said committee members.

Board member Heidi Waters asked about providing tips to teachers about organizing trips on their own, but was told that’s not even allowed. Trips can’t even be promoted during the school day. Teachers would have to go through their own bus companies and get their own insurance to go on a non-sanctioned trip.

Mitchell said there’s a lot of work now figuring out “how we support meaningful out-of-school experiences for the students” in the future. Difficult decisions will need to be made on what trips have meaning and value to students.

“If we value field trips, we’ve got to figure it out,” he said.

Of particular importance, said school officials, is figuring out how to get students to competitions related to their schooling. The real goal in the coming weeks is figuring out how to fund those trips within the district, and officials already know that it’s going to take a lot of fundraising efforts.

The irony here, said Mitchell, is that the former commissioner’s decision, meant to provide opportunities for all students, might end up killing field trips entirely.

Some solutions might be to talk to the town’s new grant writer about possibly writing a grant to fund trips, said DiModica, or putting out a town-wide memo asking residents to donate.