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MIDDLETOWN, R.I. (MAY 26, 2022) – Excitement is growing around discussions to build three new schools in town.
Less than 70 hours after the Town Council voted unanimously last week to pursue the idea further, the School Building Committee met in the Oliphant administration building to talk about what’s next.
Now, the volunteer Building Committee has another session on Tuesday, May 31 at 6:30 pm from Oliphant to dig deeper into the project and what’s in store for the next few months.
“We viewed our situation as dire after the reduction of our ‘Option E’ then rejection of our ‘Option F’ by (the Rhode Island Department of Education),” Building Committee Co-Chairman Edward Brady said. “We were dead in the water and taking on water. Then, it was like we won Powerball!”
“There’s no doubt we have a lot of work ahead of us, but it’s good to have options,” Town Administrator Shawn J. Brown said. “Like Ed’s saying, we didn’t really have a palatable solution and now we do. The direction is clear and I know we’re really looking forward to working with Newport to make our schools the best they can be together.”
A formal decision from the Middletown council about whether to move forward with the project won’t be made until the summer. Still, it was clear some were ready to go and take advantage of the state’s offer to cover 80 cents on the dollar of new school building construction.
“We are going where no one considered 18 months ago…” Brady said. “Presently, our schools in some cases were attended by our students’ great grandparents and in five short years, it will be all new schools.”
Under this model, Middletown and Newport residents would need to vote on Election Day to regionalize their school systems. Middletown voters would also need to sign off on Nov. 8 on a $235 million bond for construction of the schools. Under an ironclad agreement, RIDE would pay $188 million of those costs.
In order to make the Nov. 8 deadline, Middletown officials have said the Town Council needs to make that decision no later than its Aug. 1 meeting to get the items before voters on Election Day.
For feedback about what will work best for Middletown’s buildings, meetings are in the process of being scheduled with educators, staff and students. There’s also talk about visiting new schools across the region to see and feel of a state-of-the-art school building.
Middletown’s existing schools are 50-70 years old and in need of work. A study done for the School Building Committee last November reported at least $190 million in repairs were necessary.
Knowing that amount was more than Middletown taxpayers could bear, the Building Committee recommended $90 million in repairs. That total was reduced by the Town Council to $60 million, money that would largely cover repairs to Middletown High only.
From that situation, Middletown officials asked if Newport was interested in restarting talks. At the same time, Middletown council President Paul M. Rodrigues apologized for how some in town had dismissed the idea of working together before.
RIDE joined the process a short time later, saying the two communities could function as a regional school district under one school committee, finance committee and administration, but keep their buildings and students. The move would guarantee at least an 80 percent reimbursement from the state on all new building construction.
Of the $235 million cost for a new combined Middletown High and Gaudet Middle school and a combined elementary school, Middletown taxpayers would be on the hook for about $47 million. That’s more than $140 million less than the “Band-Aids” to fix the town’s existing schools.
The School Building Committee needs to have a Stage II design for the new schools to RIDE no later than February 23, 2023. Should voters approve the bond and regionalization, the construction of the new schools must be finished no later than November 2027.
A new combined high school-middle school would go at the former Starlight Drive-In property now multi-use fields at 1225 Aquidneck Ave. next to Gaudet Middle School.
Grades six through eight would go to classes in one part of the building completely separate from the high school grades nine through 12. Initial planning showed the building would share a 500-600 seat auditorium, a cafeteria and library media center. Importantly, middle and high school students would not be in those spaces together.
The combined elementary school would be constructed on part of the existing footprint of Middletown High at 120 Valley Road. Eventually, both Aquidneck and Forest Avenue elementary schools would close after the new combined elementary school was complete. A pre-kindergarten center for Middletown youngsters will be built on the new elementary school campus too, creating a synergy around early childhood education.
The way the school construction project is phased, temporary trailers would not be needed. Construction on the combined high school-middle school would come first, with students staying in the existing buildings until work wrapped up there. Then, building would begin at the Valley Road campus for the new elementary school, with the Aquidneck and Forest Avenue schools staying in service until they were no longer needed.
Work on the new schools would be overseen by the town, with input from school administrators, teachers and other educators playing an important role.
Although it’s early in the process, town leaders have floated the idea of using the entire Aquidneck School site at 70 Reservoir Road for community ballfields. he Forest Avenue property at 315 Forest Ave. has been considered for affordable housing.
Because there are so many moving pieces, the Town Council recently asked the town’s Open Space & Fields Committee to review the community’s existing athletic fields and potential impacts of the new school construction. The goal would be to make sure every field that currently exists would be replaced by an equal — or better — facility.
“The thought that our students will leave their 1950s-1960s schools in a June and in a September, they will enter a totally different educational environment, that’s amazing,” the Building Co-Chairman Brady said. “Also, one thing that really hasn’t been talked about is the new buildings will provide a healthy environment for all occupants.”