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Faced with the daunting prospect of asking voters to approve a bond issue that likely would exceed $100 million to replace Rogers High School, the Newport City Council this week voted to begin formal discussions with Middletown to explore the possibilities of merging high schools.
The vote at Tuesday night’s council meeting instructed city officials and Mayor Jamie Bova to seek formal discussions with Middletown officials, and involve the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) and the local legislative delegation.
Some five years ago, both communities voted in a non-binding referendum, with Newport voters overwhelming approving high school unification (65 percent in favor) and Middletown voters rejecting it (54.6 percent opposed).
Newport officials say times have changed, and the major shift has been the state’s Jacobs Report, released in the fall of 2017 that said it would take more than $2.2 billion to bring the state’s schools to adequate levels, and millions in Newport and Middletown.
That report listed Rogers as the worst facility in the state, and Middletown High School solidly in the poor category.
The Jacobs report preceded a statewide referendum that allocates $250 million in aid for school facility projects and raises the amount of funds that districts can receive for projects, with a floor of 35 percent up to 55 percent.
“I think it makes so much sense on so many levels,” said Newport Mayor Bova this week, following the council’s unanimous vote to initiate discussions with Middletown. “The school buildings are of the same vintage and built for a similar number of students.” Each school has a capacity of some 1,200.
Middletown High School was built in 1961, and currently has an enrollment of about 630. Rogers was built in 1968 and currently has an enrollment of about 590.
The Jacobs report, which appeared to understate replacement costs for some schools, said Rogers should be replaced at a cost of nearly $74 million (Newport officials say the cost could exceed $100 million). The Jacobs report pegged replacement costs for Middletown High School at nearly $48 million, and if not replaced, needed repairs over five years of nearly $19 million.
In other communities the Jacobs replacement numbers seemed far more moderate than specific district projections. In Westerly, for example, school officials are looking to replace an elementary school at a cost of nearly $42 million, as compared to $17.5 million projected in the Jacobs report.
“Most children spend a significant part of their lives inside public school buildings, so the condition of those buildings is of great concern to the state of Rhode Island,” the Jacobs report said. “Aside from the physical safety and well-being of school children and the adults who work in school buildings, it has long been accepted that the condition and design of school buildings have a direct impact on academic performance. As the state strives to prepare its public school students for success in college, careers and life, facilities must be part of the equation.”
Besides finances, Bova said she sees great opportunities to expand and improve academics in both communities.
“When you have more students, you have more options,” she said, noting areas like special education. “We are four or five miles apart.”
She recognizes the complexities of the negotiations.
“It will take a lot of hard work,” she said. “A lot of diligence. We have to try and understand each other’s issues. We can complement ourselves quite well. It’s a big change, but there are so many benefits.”
The hesitation in Middletown, she believes “comes from not knowing what it looks like. We have to do our work, to show all advantages of having a unified system.”