opinion Newport Rhode Island

The following was written by Gregory Huet.

An Open Letter Regarding School Unification to the Members of the Middletown Town Council, Middletown School Committee and Middletown Residents: 

As most of you know, on 23 January I addressed the Middletown School Committee as a concerned Middletown citizen, taxpayer and member of Citizens Exploring School Unification (CESU).

You may not be aware that CESU is a nonprofit organization registered in the State of Rhode Island. CESU is a non-partisan organization that was formed for the sole purpose of gathering data for the residents of Middletown so that all could be informed of the pros and cons of a potential unification of our school(s).

CESU’s information is public, our meetings are open, and our website can be found at CESU.NEWS. When CESU was formed, many of the members were outraged at the Town Council for not allowing discussion of the unification issue and for not giving the voters the ability to decide the fate of the recent school unification debate.

Many of the CESU members were neither pro nor con with regard to school unification; most were interested in getting good data so that the citizens of Middletown could have information to make an informed decision.  Neither the Town Council nor School Committee seemed the least bit interested in tackling a tough issue even though, as elected officials, they each took an oath of office to best serve their communities; that oath did not include an option to avoid hard work and difficult decisions.

Avoiding a tough, emotional issue, not adequately researching all aspects of an issue in a comprehensive manner, ignoring constituents requests and terminating discussion without having all of the current facts, in my mind not only shows poor judgment, indifference, lack of vision and leadership on the part of our elected officials at a minimum, but at the other end of the spectrum, would be considered what the military refers to as dereliction of duty.  

The impetus for the formation of CESU was that the Middletown Council voted down a motion 5-2 in the summer of 2019 to not even discuss the issue of school unification. Having served on active duty for 27 years, serving all over the country/world, I have seen local government bodies (both Town Councils and School Committees) excel in many communities across our nation.

I cannot ever recall seeing a Town Council silence a discussion on a decision with such major implications on a town like the Middletown Council did without input from its citizens. Many members of the Town Council will point to the defeat of the school unification issue nearly five years earlier as the basis for their most recent 5-2 vote defeating the current unification initiative. 

What isn’t mentioned however is that the initiative five years earlier was narrowly defeated 54% to 46%, and that much has changed in the five years since that vote took place. Furthermore, the information presented by the Town Council when they made their decision to vote the initiative down was unbalanced and failed to take into account all the pertinent information, much of which pointed to a need for further study and approval of the initiative. The Middletown Council’s a poor decision will have a significant impact on both the social and economic welfare on the town for decades if not quickly revisited.  

Our School Committee does not escape blame either. The School Committee, who has to my knowledge, made no attempt to educate itself on the pros and cons of the school unification issue, has failed to take a public position and more importantly, has hidden from taking a leadership role on this issue.

This is an education issue that has a direct impact on Middletown’s future economic vitality, good paying jobs for future generations, affordable housing and tax rates. The School Committee should be leading the effort, engaging the public and keeping the Town Council well informed of the school unification issue as our elected representatives for education. I believe that a solid public education is a right for all students. Ensuring that all of our children receive a good public education is the responsibility of the School Committee and the Town Council. You cannot avoid that responsibility by failing to act or attempting to suppress discussion, as history clearly shows, both the Town Council and School Committee are guilty on both accounts. 

After the Middletown Council made its decision to silence community discussion on school unification, I was horrified like many other Middletown residents. Many citizens of Middletown still may not realize that an approval by the Council would have only allowed for discussion and planning; the unification issue would still have had to be voted on by the citizens at the polls!

I wrote a letter to the editor at the time scolding the Middletown Council for their lack of vision and leadership and followed it up by my personal appearance at a Town Council meeting, again voicing my frustration with their poor decision making, lack of vision and leadership. Around this timeframe, CESU representatives gathered petitions asking residents to have the Town Council reverse its decision on the school unification issue.

Approximately 1,000 signatures were presented to the Town Council in December 2019. The Town Council once again, refused to acknowledge or respond to the efforts of many of its citizens to at least have a discussion and to study the facts with a comprehensive review by ignoring the petition request. This time however, the Town Council asked why CESU didn’t discuss school regionalization with the School Committee. My response was because the Town Council was the body of elected officials that refused to allow the discussion!  

CESU met with the Middletown School Committee on 23 January 2020 as the Town Council requested. During that meeting Dick Adams, the President of CESU addressed the School Committee and provided them with the historical  background of CESU and informed them of the work that the organization was doing to help education the Aquidneck Island citizenry on educational issues and of the well-attended educational forums held at CCRI sponsored by “Newport This Week” and CESU.

Following Dick Adams brief presentation, Barbara VonVillas, a Middletown Councilor and advisor to CESU due to her academic credentials and experience as a Middletown school teacher, school superintendent, University professor and one of only 2 of 7 Middletown Town Councilors to vote for discussion on school unification provided data that clearly showed a smaller sized school like Middletown High School did not have the enrollment to support a curriculum to adequately address the educational needs our student population.

Furthermore, the data she provided clearly showed that regional high schools outperformed schools in size similar to Middletown High School academically and provided greater social and extracurricular opportunities for their students. Dick Adams and Barbara VonVillas were professional, kind and courteous during their presentation to the School Committee. They provided the School Committee members with the kind of data that they lacked, although with a little effort, they could have found the same data had they chosen. The data is available on the CESU website CESU.NEWS. I sincerely hope that the School Committee actually does something productive with the data.

After Dick Adams and Barbara VonVillas finished their presentation, a sincere thank you was offered by the Chairperson, Ms. Simeone. Not long afterwards, Committee Member Ms. Spengler offered her comments and rambled on without once acknowledging the merit of the data Barbara VonVillas provided and almost immediately displayed a negative attitude with regard to the school unification issue. When she talked, her chief concern seemed to be rooted in her children having less opportunities in extracurricular activities, sports, drama etc under a unified school, which is in fact, not true.

As an elected official, I believe you have a responsibility to have an open mind and be willing to educate yourself on current issues; especially issues of a critical nature. Ms. Spengler’s comments reflected a very limited understanding of the breadth and scope of school unification issues, which is especially alarming given the amount of local press regionalization has received over the last year. One would expect a School Committee member to be well informed of school related issues, especially on an issue with such significant implications for our town and our students.

As you undoubtedly understand, I became frustrated listening to a misinformed, indifferent elected leader and blurted out from the audience that Ms. Spengler was talking in circles and I didn’t think she paid any attention to what Dick Adams and  Barbara VonVillas had presented. Kindly, the Chairperson, Ms. Simeone asked if I would like to speak from the podium and I accepted her offer.

I addressed the School Committee, essentially in dialogue with Ms. Spengler. I provided my name and my educational background, and that I had earned two Masters’ Degrees and that I had commanded a Marine Corps Training Battalion and that I fully understood curriculum development and education issues. I then went on to say that the residents of our community are as frustrated as I with the elected leaders of both the Town Council and the School Committee when it comes to their refusal to discuss the issue of school unification and or take a public position on the issue.

I further stated that a toxic relationship existed between the Town Council and the School Committee and that the School Committee points at the Town Council and the Town Council points at the School Committee and nothing gets done. I then asked the School Committee why is it that I have had Town Councilors ask me to ask the School Committee what their position is on school unification and stated that the residents are fed up. I reiterated that our web site had a lot of information that the Committee could use to educate themselves on the school unification issue and that I had not seen any of the members attend one of our meetings to date.

I went on to state that the useful life of Middletown High School is about five more years and no one on this Committee talks about planning for its replacement. We are spending millions on replacing doors and windows when the State is offering 80 cents on the dollar for new construction if schools are unified; but this Committee won’t even commit to a public position. The Middletown High School will need to be replaced sooner rather than later and when it does, this body of elected leaders will be asking for a lot of money that will impose a significant financial burden on every taxpayer. The Chairperson, Ms. Simeone then stated that the Committee had been working on collaboration with other school districts to which I stated, collaboration and unification are two very different issues.

In an email I sent to the School Committee Chairperson the following day I said: 

“Thank you for inviting me to the podium last night, it was greatly appreciated. First and foremost, my frustration last night was not directed at you; I think you are one of the select few members of the School Committee who has an open mind and clearly is trying to do the right thing. My essential point is that all of the School Committee Members have an obligation to those who elected them to have an understanding of the issues so that good academic and financial decisions can be made for the Town. It was evident to most people in the audience last night that the School Committee is either unwilling to address the school unification issue or like Ms. Spengler, has not done her due diligence on the issue. In either case, the School Committee owes the community a position on the school unification issue. “

In closing, my open letter, I leave these questions for all to ponder:

Did your parents and grandparents make sacrifices so you could have a good public education system to attend and are you willing to make those same sacrifices, so your children and grandchildren have those same opportunities?

When I was knocking on doors talking with Middletown residents asking them to sign a petition to have the Middletown Council revisit its decision on school unification discussion, some of the residents responded “I don’t want my kids going to school with those kids.” 

Last year’s Middletown Drama production was done at Rogers High School as a joint production of Middletown and Rogers.  Our kids participate in sports “together” all across the island. Some of the Clubs and Sports programs would not exist without participation by our kids and “those kids”.  The kids know that when unified they can do more.  What do the kids know that adults refuse to recognize? 

The communities of Newport and Middletown both generate significant revenue streams from the tourism industry and depend on minorities/English as a second language populations to work in the restaurants, hotels and other tourism related businesses but we complain about the cost of educating “those kids”. What would happen to our tourism industry and the tax revenue that it generates if they all left? 

Does anybody remember when the NCAA boycotted the State of North Carolina over discriminatory practices in 2017?  They ended the boycott after the State changed the law with the following statement: “the new law is far from perfect. But it is a beginning to assign championships and says it has been assured by the state that this new law allows the NCAA to enact its inclusive policies by contract with communities, universities, arenas, hotels and other service providers that are doing business with us, our students, other participants and fans”.  Connect the dots…… Tourism, discrimination, boycotts, hotels, conventions, restaurants, our kids and those kids.

Student enrollments of both Newport and Middletown are shrinking, while the taxpayers that support the schools are aging. What we are doing today to fund our education system is financially unsustainable.

Both Middletown High School and Rogers High School are over 50 years old and are at the end or nearly end of their useful lives.  

We live on an Island 13 miles long and have three high schools.

Before you take a position on the school unification issue you should know all of the facts, not just the ones put out by those trying to defeat the issue.

The kids are proving school unification can work if the adults allow it to happen. Where are the adults? 


Gregory Huet

Captain Huet was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania  He attended Davis and Elkins College in Elkins, West Virginia earning his Bachelor of Science Degree in Marketing and Management in 1981. After graduation, Captain Huet continued his education at Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania where he received his Master of Science Degree in Health Services Administration in 1984. He earned his second Master’s Degree from the U.S. Marine Corps Command and Staff College in Quantico, Virginia and completed his board certification requirements earning Fellow status in the American College of Healthcare Executives in 2000. Captain Huet retired from the U.S. Navy after 27 years on active duty in 2011 and is an Iraqi War Veteran.

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