By Matt Sheley, Town of Middletown
A couple years ago, Newport officials approached Middletown about the possibility of regionalizing school districts.
By all accounts, it didn’t go well and seemed to scuttle the idea once and for all.
On Wednesday night at a summit from Innovate Newport headquarters on Broadway, Middletown Town Council President Paul M. Rodrigues apologized again for the town’s handling of the regionalization request during the last go around.
Noting the playing field and reimbursement offer from the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) has changed significantly since, Rodrigues said he appreciated the opportunity to work together with Newport to help every student get a better education.
It’s the first time the councils and school committees in each community have sat together in one room since the regionalization talks restarted in March and Rodrigues comments drew applause from many of the 50 plus people in attendance.
Addressing former Newport Mayor and current Newport City Councilwoman Jamie Bova, her colleagues on the council, School Committee and city itself, Rodrigues said he was truly sorry.
“Circumstances have changed, but it doesn’t change the fact the way we treated you that night,” Rodrigues said. “I’ve said it publicly are our meeting…Whether this (regionalization) passes or it doesn’t pass, I personally hope it does, I want to make sure I said it to you personally.”
Prior to the opening of the summit, the mood was light and upbeat, with leaders and residents from both communities catching up and exchanging pleasantries, almost like a neighborhood block party or family reunion.
Moving into the business portion of the meeting, consultant David Sturtz of Cooperative Strategies took the audience through findings that showed the numbers indicated there were opportunities for Middletown and Newport to benefit, provided the goal was student achievement and success.
After moving through a number of slides on computer slideshow that offered a sneak peak into a community forum on regionalization, Sturtz answered questions from a number of those on hand.
Those ranged from how data was collected and calculated on the potential savings of regionalization to who would be responsible for paying future bonds, if the regional district was approved.
A free-flowing dialogue emerged, with a number of concerns about regionalization expressed, but no one outright dismissing the notion.
Based on what Sturtz had seen so far, such a step would be a mistake, especially when there was the prospect of so much good coming from the move.
“The opportunities are there,” Sturtz said. “They have to be leveraged. They have to be pressed, but people and that would be the case if you regionalized or not. We’re looking at the next five years, 10 years, 20 years. Does the setting, does the context of two districts in this community better service the context of one?”
To help provide the best details possible about regionalization, there are informational sessions planned for July 25 and 26. The meetings on the 25th are in person at 3:30 pm and 6 pm from the Innovate Newport headquarters, 513 Broadway. On the 26th, there will be an online Zoom meeting. To get more details on those sessions, visit https://middletown-newport.us online. Both are expected to deliver data and statistics about the potential impacts of regionalization on students, classrooms and the community.
Many of those in attendance indicated they liked what they were interested in what they were hearing, but they needed more.
“I’m looking at this as an economic development opportunity…” City Councilwoman Angela McCalla said. “I envision our school systems as a way to keep our community robust in a few different ways. One, it is not your wealthy 1 percent that is generating a robust economy. It’s your everyday workers that are doing that, that are supporting our local businesses year round. The reality is if we want to continue to have year round residents and we want to attract people to be able to come and actually live here, what is the No. 1 thing families are looking for? It is absolutely the school district.”
“We need to start looking at this in terms of the opportunities to bring everybody up,” Middletown Councilman Christopher Logan said.”(There are some students who say) ‘I don’t do math, I don’t do English. I may do something else.’ Am I offering them that opportunity to move forward with my peers. All of this is great but it has to be an even playing field to meet every kid where they are in their educational journey and every kid is different.”
This round of regionalization talks have progressed further than ever before even though the idea of Middletown and Newport teaming up with education has been discussed off and on for decades.
To help guide the effort, representatives from each community have been appointed to a Steering Committee. That aim of the group is to streamline decision making 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.
Newport City Manager Joseph J. Nicholson Jr., school Superintendent Colleen Burns Jermain, City Council Vice Chairwoman Lynn Underwood Ceglie and School Committeewoman Rebecca Bolan represent the City By The Sea on the Steering Committee. Middletown is represented by Town Administrator Shawn J. Brown, school Superintendent Rosemarie K. Kraeger, Councilwoman Barbara A. VonVillas and School Committee Chairwoman Theresa Spengler.
Enabling legislation approved by the General Assembly in June sets the guide rails for regionalization, addressing everything from the membership of the Regional School Committee to how payments are made to send students to the new district. To read the legislation, visit https://www.middletownri.com/DocumentCenter/View/5081/S2961A online.
In order for regionalization to be approved, voters in Middletown and Newport must approve ballot questions on Election Day, Nov. 8. Middletown voters are also being asked to okay a $235 million bond to building a new middle-high school and combined elementary school and early education center. That’s because RIDE is reimbursing Middletown at 80.5 cents on every dollar spent of the new schools, far higher than its usual 13 percent.
Newport is also in line to take advantage of this deal, with $50 million pledged from RIDE for the Rogers High School construction work. The way the agreement is structured, Middletown taxpayers would also be on the hook for future improvements to Newport schools
Previously, consultants outlined a number of exciting possibilities for the new school buildings. 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.
According to consultant designs, the 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.
Students in grades six through eight would have 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, cafeteria and library media center. Importantly, middle and high school students would not use those spaces together.
The combined elementary school is planned for 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, work 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.
Should voters approve the bond and regionalization, the construction of the new schools must be finished no later than December 2028.