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WESTERLY — Despite concerns about a possible public perception of a lack of transparency in the process, the School Committee awarded a bid to a Boston-based contractor Wednesday to perform an equity audit in its schools.

Committee members voted 4-3 to hire Public Consulting 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 bid said the urgency of waning assessment scores were a major factor in their approval. 

The audit, which will cost $65,000, will look at a variety of potential factors, including race, gender, socioeconomic factors, upbringing and other variables.

The measure passed by one vote only after committee member Rebecca Fowler paused in silent reflection before casting the final and decisive vote to move forward with the audit. Christine Cooke, Marianne Nardone and Giuseppe Gencarelli voted in opposition.

“I’m not opposed to this, but I do not like having to vote without them here to present to us. Reading it on paper is entirely different than having people in front of us, offering a presentation to really show us what it’s all about,” Fowler said in the committee's discussion prior to the vote. “I think it would go a long way to settling the public. That is what makes me uncomfortable.”

The measure's approval came after several weeks of protests by opponents and vocal support from advocates spurred by the emotionally charged discussions at a Sept. 7 meeting when the bid approval was initially included early in the agenda for a vote but was removed before the meeting after concerns from both the public and committee members.

The concept has proved polarizing among members of the public, with several advocates and opponents of the equity audit speaking at the committee's prior meetings as well as writing letters to the committee.

In two weeks before Wednesday's meeting, School Committee Chairwoman Diane Chiaradio Bowdy said she received approximately 40 letters or emails, with about 25 in favor and 15 against.

Those divisions were clear again Wednesday evening, with over a dozen residents speaking during a public comment section that lasted more than an hour.

Robert Chiaradio, has adamantly opposed the equity 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 called for the audit earlier this year and has taken responsibility for the request at both September meetings. Chiaradio and Westerly resident Judith Walker each said they believe the audit will be a step in the wrong direction.

“I fear this will lead us down a different course where we are focused not on productivity, learning or intellect, but on becoming social justice warriors,” Walker said. “This is an audit that is basically looking for racism and all the other ‘isms.’ This is noxious, harmful, poisonous and divisive.”

Those who favored conducting the audit said that they do not believe the audit will cause division, with both Cillino and Chiaradio Bowdy saying instead that it would provide direct additional data in order to address problems with the district’s test scores.

In the latest round of Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System testing data, which was provided to districts over the summer, only 34% of Westerly students were meeting expectations in English and Language Arts and 17.2% were meeting expectations in math.

“It seems the more you look at data, the more questions you start to have and want to ask. These figures made me ask ‘why?’” Cillino said. “People think we are looking to create a problem, but we're not trying to create any problems at all. Collecting data is about looking at what you have, and after we collect more data we can make decisions from there.”

Fowler and Michael Ober both said that while they support the concept of the audit for that purpose, they were disappointed there was no presentation with members of Public Consulting Group first. Along with Cooke, Nardone and Gencarelli, all five said that 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 concerns that in the future, more should be done to make sure the entire process remains more transparent.

For Cooke and Nardone, the decision not to approve was a disagreement on how and where to collect data. For Gencarelli, it was too soon to move forward in awarding a bid and he said he would have preferred to wait until there was a presentation or until the town could see the results of a current study that Public Consulting Group was working on.

Cooke said that while she does not agree with the audit, which she said would result in biased and inaccurate results that will suggest expensive solutions, it is clear the committee does need to address issues with scores. She said the district is 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 look deeply at any 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, go to education data and plug in Westerly. You can search for almost anything you want.”

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