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Chariho High School senior Erin McDonough, 18, is president of the school chorus and plans to study pharmacy at URI upon graduation. | Jill Connor / The Westerly Sun

Chariho board debates role of parent liaison

WOOD RIVER JUNCTION — In her role as parent liaison to the School Committee, Hopkinton resident Catherine Guisti drew praise and some criticism from committee members in a meeting Tuesday night.

Ultimately, the committee voted 6-2 to have Guisti continue to serve as a connection between district parents and committee representatives. Voting for her were committee members George Abbott, Donna Chambers, Craig Louzon, Robert Cardozo, Gregory Kenney and William Day, the chairman. Georgia Ure and Keven Miller voting no.

Since she proposed the position seven months ago as a way to increase parental involvement in the school district, Guisti has attended committee meetings and compiled email newsletters summarizing key points from the meetings to send to parents. She has also attended some parent-teacher organization meetings, and sent out three electronic surveys based on pressing district issues, such as the budget and matriculation requirements in the elementary schools.

“My goal isn’t to inform people in their decisions. My goal is to give them as much information as possible to allow them to make their own decisions,” she said, noting that many parents are not able to attend School Committee meetings or may be reluctant to express their concerns directly.

In reviewing the “trial period” Guisti has served in her self-created position, many committee members commended Guisti for accomplishing her goals.

“I think she’s done a great job,” Chambers said.

Superintendent Barry Ricci agreed.

“In my nine years as superintendent, no one has ever stepped forward and taken this kind of initiative and devoted as much energy to this as Catherine,” he said, adding that the results of her informal electronic surveys provided useful feedback. “I don’t know what the downside is.”

While Robert Cardozo echoed these thoughts and ultimately voted for continuing the position, he also shared some concern with what he described as an “editorial bias” in some of the newsletters.

“I thought this was going to be an unbiased report of our meetings,” he said. “If you want to call it a blog, it’s a blog, but it’s not an accurate reporting of what’s going on here.”

Guisti responded that her intent was never to provide a completely objective point of view, since as a mother of three children — two of whom are students in the district — she will always have a parental bias. She added that her role has been effective in reaching parents, estimating that 35 percent of those to whom her email newsletters are sent, based on school Listserv signups, open the documents regularly.

Guisti also said she welcomed any more guidelines and feedback from School Committee members.

“I’d like more concrete guidelines, if they have them,” she said. “The feedback I’ve gotten from parents has been very positive.”

While Ricci recommended that the School Committee consider adopting a formal policy to set such guidelines for the role, Barbara Capalbo, Hopkinton town councilor, cautioned against the possible implications of such a policy.

“If you try having a major policy, then she is no longer neutral,” Capalbo said. “She’s not supposed to be on your side, or somebody else’s side. And it may not sit well with the parents she’s trying to reach.”

Ure and Miller, who both voted against allowing Guisti to continue in her current role, cited a desire to fulfill the district’s strategic plan for communication and transparency as a priority. Miller emphasized the need for a committee Facebook page, which he said could serve as a means for communication between parents and committee members instead of Guisti.

“The social media community is a site that reaches everybody,” he said. “I would rather see us put our time and energy into strategic communication with our stakeholders.”

Chambers and several committee members, as well as Guisti, disagreed, explaining that the two were not mutually exclusive, and could both serve to increase transparency and communication.

“I don’t think it’s a good substitution,” Guisti said. “I think Facebook can be very polarizing. My hope is that eventually the district won’t need a newsletter, because enough parents will come to the meetings.”

The wider topic of increasing communication between the school district and its residents was highlighted throughout the discussion. The complexity of the issue likely will require further discussion, Cardozo said.

“The real question is, how do we get involved with it, how do we present ourselves,” he said.

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