“We’re going to make it work.” Those are the words of Newport Mayor Jeanne Marie Napolitano in anticipation of both the Newport and Middletown Councils agreeing to a plan to “unify” the school systems, and then seek voter approval in November.
The Newport City Council and School Committee are meeting tomorrow (Thursday) in executive session to finalize a “contract.” She expects Middletown to do the same, likely this week, in time to meet a legislative deadline of mid-May to request approval to put the “unification” proposal on a November ballot.
Napolitano on Thursday clarified that what she meant by “contract” is actually finalizing the request to the legislature, which would then approve that the proposed “unification” be placed on a November ballot in both communities.
“By and large we’ve reached an agreement,” the mayor said, with a “few outstanding questions.”
The towns are facing a deadline of getting a proposal to legislators by mid-May, she said. And while some issues may still be unresolved, she expects the document to represent a “final agreement.”
Both communities are facing substantial school construction projects. Newport is in the process of expanding its elementary school and beginning the rebuild of Rogers High School, after the passage of a bond of more than $100 million. A large percentage of that will be paid by the state, but with unification, it will be a much larger portion of up to 80 percent.
In Middletown, its School Building Committee initially proposed a $90 million school improvement bond in January, a figure that didn’t sit well with the council.
With urging from the Rhode Island Department of Education, Middletown and Newport initiated unification talks, an option rejected by Middletown a few years ago. However, with prospects of millions of dollars in additional state aid, the two sides began talking again.
Napolitano said this time, talks have been fruitful, and she anticipates a merger document to evolve before the mid-May deadline, approved by both Councils, sent to the legislature, and on the ballot in November.
A leading incentive for both towns is the prospect of state reimbursement of up to 80 percent of the construction projects.
What will unification look like? It’s not a merger, but Napolitano described it as more of a consolidation “on the administrative end,” meaning one superintendent, one finance director, and basic streamlining of administrations. Additionally, programs at both Middletown and Newport will be “available for all students. Bottom line is kids from both systems will benefit.”