By Matt Sheley, Town of Middletown

MIDDLETOWN, R.I. (JUNE 6, 2022) – A steering committee is being formed to help guide the regionalization process between Middletown and Newport.

On Monday night, Councilwoman Barbara A. VonVillas was named as the representative from the Middletown Town Council to the new eight-member board. 

In addition to Middletown Town Administrator Shawn J. Brown and school Superintendent Rosemarie K. Kraeger, a representative from the Middletown School Committee is expected  to be named at the school board’s meeting Thursday night at 3:30 pm from the Oliphant administration building.

The City of Newport is expected to do the same, with City Manager Joseph J. Nicholson Jr., school Superintendent Coleen Burns Jermain and representatives from the Newport City Council and School Committee are in line to be selected as well.

The goal of the group is to help streamline the decision-making process around regionalization and make sure every question is answered well in advance of Election Day, when voters are expected to cast their ballots on the issue in both communities.

“Everything is really gelling,” Brown said. “Newport and Middletown are working together on this closely and a decision was made that a steering committee made up of key stakeholders was critical to the success of this process. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover and we want to do that as smoothly and equitably as possible.”

All told, there will be five subcommittees helping provide regular information, data and feedback to the steering board. Those are Education, Communications, Website, Outreach and Finance. 

The steering committee is expected to meet at least weekly to go over the latest developments the work to join Newport and Middletown schools under one School Committee, Finance Committee and administration.

On Thursday at 6 pm in Town Hall, the council is slated to meet with the School Committee for a special meeting about regionalization. There, town and school leaders are expected to go over the ins and outs of regionalization and what it means for Middletown, should it be approved by voters on Nov. 8.

In-person meetings are planned on June 20 from 3:30-5:30 pm and 6-8 pm from Newport Wyndham Hotel, 220 Aquidneck Ave., where parents, students and Newport and Middletown residents can learn more about regionalization, share their thoughts and ask questions. Online informational forums are planned for the next day June 21, one in English, the other in Spanish.

At a session last week, members of the volunteer School Building Committee heard from consultants DBVW of Providence, HMFH Architects, Colliers International and Design Civic. 

The consultants outlined all the exciting possibilities for the new school buildings in Middletown. Natural lighting, open and inviting learning spaces, safe, secure and state-of-the-art 21st century facilities were among the items that led that list.

That’s a far cry from the $190 million plus in “Band-Aid” repairs the schools now need to keep the 60- to 70-year-old buildings operational for another 10 or 20 years.

Speaking on the matter, resident John Bagwill said he’d like to hear more about the educational benefits from regionalization, something that should be the main driver of the effort.

“I really think it’s important to focus on the added value (on education),” Bagwill said. “The focus has been on financing and capital.”

In March, the Rhode Island Department of Education said if the town regionalized school systems with Newport, Middletown could get 80.5 percent reimbursement on any new school construction. So instead of putting “Band-Aids” on its 60- and 70-year-old buildings, the town could have all new state-of-the-art facilities for less than $50 million.

In order for the plan to move forward, Middletown and Newport voters must approve the regionalization concept on Election Day. Middletown voters would also need to okay the $235 million bond, which the town would be reimbursed by RIDE at 80 cents on the dollar.

According to designs from DBVW Colliers International, a new combined high school-middle school would be built at the former Starlight Drive-In property now multi-use fields at 1225 Aquidneck Ave. next to Gaudet  Middle School.

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Students in 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 use 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.

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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.

A formal decision from the Middletown council about whether to place the items on the Election Day ballot won’t be made until the summer. 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.

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.

“We’re trying to be in lockstep with what Newport is doing…” council President Paul M. Rodrigues said. “We’re working together.”

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