By Matt Shealey, Town of Middletown

The positives of school regionalization between Newport and Middletown were discussed Monday.

During the early informational forum at the Knights Of Columbus Hall on Valley Road, the 50 people on hand heard a consistent message about the opportunities regionalization creates.

More money from the state for education, for sure. But also the possibility of more funding in each of the classrooms as well as improved offerings to students both in and out of school, whether that was more Advanced Placement courses, career ed or extracurriculars.

While organizers acknowledged it will be difficult to map out the specifics until after regionalization was approved, they said there was no doubt it opened many potential doors for improving education across both communities. 

“In each of these models, you can see pre/post that there were opportunities that the districts were able to leverage for gains academically, behaviorally, financially,” consultant David Sturtz said. “They happened to different degrees in different circumstances, which should be expected. Towns, kids and situations differ, but what was common throughout was when benefits were made financially, academically and behaviorally, they were made intentionally. The adults at the helm intentionally sought to improve the position of their kids and of their district. They looked at the regionalization and took advantage of the opportunities that presented themselves to benefit the kids. Nothing happened laissez faire.”

Everyone was asked to fill out a survey as soon as possible with their thoughts on regionalization available at https://mdl.town/Regionalization online. 

A virtual session is planned for Tuesday, Aug. 23 from 6-8 pm online. For a link to that meeting, please visit https://mdl.town/Regionalization online and check the “Events” page.

Planning For The Future

The opening for the forum took on a similar feel as the first two sessions, one in June, the other in July.

This meeting was led by Jessica Goodell of the Woolpert Group, Sturtz and Susan Miller of Cooperative Strategies along with the school regionalization steering committee members. In Newport, City Manager Joseph Nicholson, school Superintendent Colleen Burns Jermain, City Council Vice Chairwoman Lynn Underwood Ceglie and School Committeewoman Rebecca Bolan are on the group. In Middletown, Town Administrator Shawn J. Brown, Superintendent Rosemarie K. Kraeger, Councilwoman Barbara A. VonVillas and School Committee Chairwoman Theresa Spengler serve on the board.

Together, the group has been talking regularly about regionalization, where the process is well defined and where additional information was needed. Monday’s forum was part of the group’s outreach efforts.

In order for regionalization to move forward, Newport and Middletown voters must approve ballot questions on Election Day, Nov. 8 supporting the proposal. 

Middletown voters are also being asked to back a $235 million bond for construction of a new middle-high school along with a combined elementary school. In addition to having  clean, safe, new buildings, the fact the state has pledged to pay 80.5 cents of every dollar for the schools is a major selling point. That means the new schools are projected to cost Middletown about $47 million. The price tag for upgrades to Middletown High School along are projected at about $90 million.

And those figures don’t include the $2.4 million to $4.8 million of annual savings realized from efficiencies by combining the two districts, primarily realized from the administrative level.  None of the saving were from the classroom because the assumption is every teacher is needed. 

In response to a question, Ceglie said she’d to see the councils in Newport and Middletown commit at least some of the overall savings generated by regionalization back into education.

“We were expecting 52.5 percent reimbursement (for new building construction) and now we could possibly get 80.5 percent reimbursement,” Ceglie said. “I think it is only fair for the students to benefit from some of that money. Some of it has to go to paying off the bond, but I believe there has to be a promising decision that future councils that there is money that will be used to educate our children.”

Former Middletown council President Christopher Semonelli said if regionalization doesn’t work, it won’t be because of the students.

“I want to commend everybody for working this through and trying to work together,” Semonelli said. “It’s difficult…(The late) Jamie Crowley was a principal (in the Bristol Warren School District) and I asked him ‘What was it like out there?’ and he said ‘Chris, it was the parents that had a problem with everybody getting together.’ The kids didn’t know that they were from two different regions and they got along very well.”

Process Spelled Out

Should regionalization be okayed, the state legislation guiding the process lays out a defined timeline for things to move forward.

That includes the implementation of a transition team to help the two districts merge together. A new seven-member regional school committee would be elected during a special election in November 2023. Newport and Middletown would each have three members on that board, with the seventh seat going to the next highest vote getter, regardless of what community they live in.

The regional school committee, regional finance committee and unified school administration will act as the drivers of the effort from there. This includes determining what students go to which schools, how the school day will run, the curriculum and other important details.

In Middletown, consultants have outlined a number 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.

The $47 million projected price tag is a fraction of 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.

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.

According to consultant designs, 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.

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.

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.

For more information, visit https://middletown-newport.us online for news, frequently asked questions and other updates.

Town of Middletown

News and updates from the Town of Middletown. For more news, updates, and information, visit www.middletownri.com.