Newport officials to meet with Middletown Council, hopeful of again initiating high school merger talks

Rogers High School

Midtown Oyster Bar

Newport school and city officials, state legislators and perhaps officials from the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) will descend upon the Middletown Town Council next Monday (June 3), hopeful of persuading the town to consider unification of the Rogers (Newport) and Middletown High Schools, both of which have been identified in need of millions of dollars in repairs, or replacement.

This is the latest effort to merge the high schools. Last year a motion before the Middletown Town Council failed to gain a second, despite indications from RIDE of considerably increased state aid for both systems that would have provided millions in additional state funding. Previously, in town-wide votes, voters in Newport approved unification, and voters in Middletown rejected it by a relatively close vote (52 percent to 48 percent, according to Newport Mayor Jamie Bova).

Bova said the June 3 meeting, scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on the same night as a Middletown Town Council Meeting, is intended “to begin discussions with Middletown.”

The effort to renew talks was initiated by Newport. A RIDE report, called the Jacobs report, issue in late 2017 said schools throughout Rhode Island need more than $2.2 billion in repairs to remedy what it identified as facility deficiencies. Projected to five years, that number increases to more than $3 billion.

Rogers High School was deemed the high school in worst condition in Rhode Island, and a “replacement candidate” at a cost of more than $73 million. Middletown wasn’t much better, winning a poor rating, with projected repairs at $13.5 million (more than $18 million in five years).

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Both schools, Bova said, were built for about 1,200 students, and each is operating about half its capacity.

“It makes all the sense in the world,” said Bova, who is originally from Middletown and played soccer for Middletown High School. “A lot of folks in the community think it’s a good idea.”

Bova believes a new “unified school” not only upgrades aging facilities, but by expanding enrollment would allow for additional educational offerings.

Meanwhile, Bova said, Newport is progressing in its effort to secure funding under the $250 million state school bond passed last year, and the state’s annual allocation for school construction, which is $80 million this year.

At the council’s June 12 meeting, she anticipates it will approve a letter of intent to RIDE, and in September the stage one application. The school committee, she said, is expected to approve the letter of intent at its June 11 meeting.

By the time it reaches the stage two submission, the specifics of the plan are expected to be well developed. Bova said the city is currently at the “community engagement stage.”

Councilwoman Jeanne Napolitano has projected that overall school facility needs could range from $100 to $180 million. The Jacobs report’s five – year facility condition index projects Newport needs as $73.8 million to replace Rogers High School; $2,736,000 for Pell School, which it rates as good; and $5.6 million for Thompson Middle School, which it rates as average. In other communities, Jacobs numbers seemed to be understated.

Currently, the city would qualify for 35 percent funding from the state, plus eligibility to qualify for five percent for each of what are called temporary incentives.

Those incentives include, health and safety, replacement, consolidation, educational enhancements, decrease overcrowding, and increase utilization.

The base rate of 35 percent is based on a community’s housing values, Bova said, which puts Newport at a disadvantage as the mansions raise housing values. According to Kids Count more than 60 percent of the system’s students qualify for free or reduced breakfast and lunch programs, and U.S. News and World Report identifies 61 percent of students coming from economically disadvantaged homes.

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