School bond likely on 2020 ballot

Rogers High School

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Newporters are likely to be voting on a substantial school bond referendum next fall (2020), following a School Building Committee vote last week that approved the concept of building a $101 million high school to replace Rogers High School.

“The goal is to have a bond referendum on the 2020 ballot – the impact on the tax rate would very much depend on the amount of the bond,” said Newport Mayor Jamie Bova, a member of the school building committee.

The project is certain to be hotly debated over the many months ahead. The choice to hold a referendum in the fall of 2020 is certain to bring out a robust turnout in what is a presidential election year.

In Westerly, voters rejected a 74.1 million bond referendum that would have included a new elementary school and improvements throughout the system. Only 20 percent of eligible voters turned out in the special election on Oct. 10. 

If the Westerly vote is a bellwether of things to come, it signals a deeply divided electorate among those who are staunchly opposed to tax increases, those that want educational reform, and a significant number of voters who were simply disinterested.

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The Newport School Building Committee vote also allows the building committee’s consultant, Studio JAED of Providence, an architectural and engineering firm, to begin designing a new high school. Studio JAED has said it will hold a series of community meetings to get input from city residents.

A backdrop to the vote has been ongoing discussions with Portsmouth about possible regionalization, and a move afoot in Middletown to persuade that town council to reconsider its vote to not consider regionalization with Newport. 

There’s a public forum scheduled for next Monday evening from 6:30 to 8 at CCRI in Newport to explore “the future of our island high schools.” The online invite targeted residents, parents, taxpayers and students of Portsmouth, Middletown and Newport.

Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, will moderate a panel of significant state leaders. Scheduled to appear: Christine Johnson, assistant director of the Massachusetts Association of Regional Schools; Christine Lopes-Metcalfe, chief executive officer of the Rode Island Department of Education’s School Building Authority; Tim Duffy, executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees; state Rep. Marvin Abney, who represents Newport and Middletown and chairs the House Finance Committee; and state Sen. Lou DiPalma, who represents Middletown, Newport, Tiverton and Little Compton and is a member of the Senate’s education committee.

Meanwhile, Newport is moving ahead, armed with a state report that identified Rogers as perhaps the high school in most need of replacement in Rhode Island. 

The process now will be to develop specific plans that will be submitted for approval by the School Committee, Council and RIDE. 

Bova said she expects more specific plans to be finalized in February, submitted then to the council, school committee, and the state.

Those plans, Bova said “will have to include the scope of all needed projects – Thompson updates and Early Learning Center solution. Those do not necessarily need to be included in the bond. Final solutions for the Early Learning Center have not been identified.”

The School Building Committee was also confident it would qualify for a series of incentives that would increase state aid from 35 percent to 52.5 percent. Bova was uncertain for which incentives the city could qualify.

A 2018 statewide bond earmarked $250 million as incentives to cities and town to upgrade schools. A 2017 RIDE report said it would cost well over $600 million to bring all state school to a safe level, and more than $2.2 billion to achieve not only safe, but educationally sound facilities across the state.