A policy passed in December is causing a stir among parents and community groups after the district moved to prohibit outside groups from distributing flyers in schools. A change could be in the cards for these organizations, however, according to School Committee member Janice Ruggieri.
“I’ve been working with Jeannine [Nota-Masse, assistant superintendent] and our attorney to see what we could do that would still maintain community-wide communication and make sure we’re following the policy guidelines,” she said.
The change came about as the district begins to update all of its policies. In this instance, it came to light that Cranston did not adhere to a state law that requires districts to have a policy in place regarding commercial activity and fundraising in public schools. In response, the district opted to prohibit outside groups from distributing literature, instead encouraging them to post flyers on the district website.
Ruggieri, who authored the policy, has been a part of a lively discussion on the BASICS Facebook page that elicited more than 180 responses. Parents have been critical of the policy, saying it disenfranchises groups that provide important after-school enrichment programs.
“As a parent of two kids at different schools with a busy life, I will not be able to remember to go online and print off the flyers they are looking now to omit,” said parent Suzanne Arena, adding that she has a “huge problem” with the policy.
Adding fuel to the fire were comments about flyers recently going home in student backpacks. Kerri Kelleher, president of BASICS and a regular at committee meetings, and others said they received a flyer for a specific group after the policy was approved.
Superintendent Dr. Judy Lundsten said her understanding was that the particular flyer was approved in November, prior to the policy change, but Facebook users allege that dates within the flyer were only approved at a December meeting. Questions were posed about preferential treatment.
Assistant Superintendent Nota-Masse, who is charged with approving flyers, was out sick Tuesday and could not be reached for comment.
Late in the day Tuesday, Ruggieri said she has been working on an amended policy for weeks that would be introduced at the next meeting of the Cranston School Committee, scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 22. Ruggieri did not want to go into details on the language of the policy, as she has not yet shared it with her committee colleagues. She did say that she began working on it shortly after the initial policy change.
She says that work began before the Facebook thread exploded, but nothing could be done before the next regularly scheduled meeting.
“I had already started looking at amending this policy,” she said. “I try and answer on [Facebook], so people get the facts and I try to make sure there’s not misinformation spread, but it gets convoluted.”
School Committee member Stephanie Culhane was surprised to see how heated some of the responses were.
“For something that is not a huge, heavy issue, I just don’t understand the fervor,” she said. “If people want to speak, the time to speak is at a meeting or pick up the phone and call us.”
Some parents believe the battle could have been avoided if communication had been better to begin with. On the Facebook thread, some users question if the issue was pushed through too quickly.
A first reading of the policy was approved at a work session on Dec. 17, 2012. Two days later, on Dec. 19, it came before the full School Committee.
Kelleher said that few parents have time to attend every work session, and the issue was resolved in a matter of days, just before the holidays. She would have liked to see figures reported of the potential impacts, such as how many hits the district website gets, or how complete school listserves are.
To vote to approve in such a short time frame, “for a policy that has such severe ramifications for the ‘extras’ that the district can’t provide that outside organizations do, doesn’t seem like due diligence,” she said.
“I understand if they want to prohibit outside organizations from fundraising, but to restrict sports programs or music programs or any kind of program that provides enrichment to students seems absurd to me,” Kelleher said.
Ruggieri maintains that the intent of the policy is not to hurt after-school groups. Writing policy is a responsibility of the committee, and she said more changes would be coming down the pike, as the district continues to review policy to ensure adherence to state law.
“Our end result is not to be detrimental to these organizations who are beneficial to the community,” she said.
In the future, she recommends that Cranston residents keep an eye on the Secretary of State and Cranston Public Schools websites for agendas, which include language for any new resolutions.
“We’re trying to follow the law as it’s intended. It’s not that we want to disenfranchise anyone,” Culhane said.
Arena isn’t so sure. She notes that not all families have access to computers, while others are unfamiliar with the technology and others still could face language barriers.
“I find it discriminatory,” she said.
In her experience, Kelleher says anywhere from 15 to 20 percent of the guardians with children enrolled in BASICS’ after-school music program do not use email.
“You’re eliminating communication to those families and not even giving them opportunities anymore,” she said.
Kelleher added that, as a parent, she got an email Monday that other parents received the previous week. She knows of other parents who have still not received messages sent out through the listserves, making her question the effectiveness of the technology currently in place.
“To say we’re going to go more electronic, it’s not working and this is important information that parents aren’t getting,” she said.
Culhane believes that going digital is a step in the right direction. She ticked off the billing companies and banks that are going paperless, and said that this is a good way for the district to see if following suit is possible.
“Why not try something different? If we hear back from organizations saying we’re failing, maybe we’ll sit down and reconsider this,” she said.
Another option discussed on social media has been creating Facebook or Twitter accounts for the district, saving parents from having to regularly check the schools’ website. Culhane says it is a possibility, but one that she has concerns about, given the often confrontational exchanges on Facebook pages now.
“Given what goes on, on some of the social sites I look at, I think that’s not a road we want to traverse at this time,” she said.
For now, Cranston after-school programs and organizations will have to wait and see what next week’s amended policy will look like, and whether they might have limited access to student backpacks.
If not, Kelleher says the discussion on how to best communicate with parents will continue.
“If BASICS chooses to move forward – and that will be a big question we have to figure out for ourselves – we would be looking for more out-of-the-box ideas,” she said.