WESTERLY — Despite concerns about a possible public perception of a lack of transparency in the process, the school board on Wednesday awarded a bid to a Boston-based contractor to conduct an equity audit at its schools.
Committee members voted 4-3 to hire a public consultation group to conduct surveys and compile other relevant data in an effort to measure the school district’s effectiveness in providing equal educational opportunities. Those who voted to award the offer said the urgency of the ratings drop was a major factor in their approval.
The audit, which will cost $65,000, will examine a variety of potential factors including race, gender, socioeconomic factors, education and other variables.
The measure passed by a single vote after committee member Rebecca Fowler paused in silent reflection before casting a final, decisive vote to move the audit forward. Christine Cooke, Marianne Nardone and Giuseppe Gencarelli voted against.
“I’m not opposed to that, but I don’t like having to vote without them here to introduce us. Reading it on paper is totally different than having people in front of us, giving a presentation to really show us what it’s all about,” Fowler said during the committee’s discussion before the vote. “I think that would go a long way in calming the public down. That’s what makes me uncomfortable. »
The approval of the measure came after several weeks of protests from opponents and vocal support from advocates spurred by emotionally charged discussions at a September 7 meeting when endorsement of the bid was originally included at the start. off the agenda for a vote, but was removed before the meeting after concerns. both the public and committee members.
The concept proved polarizing among members of the public, with several fairness audit advocates and opponents speaking at previous committee meetings and writing letters to the committee.
Two weeks before Wednesday’s meeting, school committee president Diane Chiaradio Bowdy said she received about 40 letters or emails, including about 25 in favor and 15 against.
Those divisions were clear again Wednesday night, with more than a dozen residents speaking out in a public comment section that lasted more than an hour.
Robert Chiaradio, adamantly opposed the fairness audit and accused Chiaradio Bowdy, his sister, and Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau of trying to hide the effort from the public, even though school committee member, Robert Cillino, requested the audit earlier this year and took responsibility for the request at both September meetings. Chiaradio and Westerly resident Judith Walker each said they thought the audit would be a step in the wrong direction.
“I’m afraid this will take us down a different path where we focus not on productivity or learning or intellect, but on becoming social justice warriors,” Walker said. “This is an audit that basically looks for racism and all the other ‘isms’. It’s harmful, noxious, toxic and divisive.
Those in favor of carrying out the audit said they did not believe the audit would cause a divide, with Cillino and Chiaradio Bowdy instead saying it would provide direct additional data in order to address issues related to district test results.
In the latest round of Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System test data, which was provided to districts over the summer, only 34% of Westerly students met expectations in English and language arts and 17.2 % met expectations in mathematics.
“It seems the more you look at the data, the more questions you start to ask yourself and want to ask them. These numbers made me ask “why?” “said Cillino. “People think we’re trying to create a problem, but we’re not trying to create problems at all. Data collection is about looking at what you have, and after collecting more data, we can make decisions from there. »
Both Fowler and Michael Ober said that while they support the concept of the audit for this purpose, they were disappointed that there was no presentation with members of the Public Consulting Group first. Along with Cooke, Nardone and Gencarelli, all five said the district may have used the process in place, but the perception was that the subcommittee’s work in interviewing nine candidates “was done under a veil of secrecy. “.
All five expressed concern that in the future more should be done to ensure the whole process remains more transparent.
For Cooke and Nardone, the decision not to approve was a disagreement over how and where to collect the data. For Gencarelli, it was too early to move forward with awarding a bid and he said he would have preferred to wait until there was a presentation or the city could see the results of an ongoing study on which worked Public Consulting Group.
Cooke said that while she disagreed with the audit, which she said would lead to biased and inaccurate results that would suggest costly solutions, it’s clear the committee needs to address the issues with the scores. She said the district was wrong to use taxpayer dollars when a lot of relevant and usable data is already available to the district through the Rhode Island Department of Education.
“On the RIDE website, you can take an in-depth look at all areas of concern,” she said. “That information is there, and it really is one of the easiest sites to use. Just go to the RIDE website, access education data and plug in Westerly. You can search almost anything you want.