I first heard about the proposed administrative regionalization of Newport and Middletown school districts on March 11, 2022. Shock turned to dismay when I learned the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) had offered Middletown officials a deal to build three new schools with 80.5% reimbursement – the highest possible level of reimbursement normally offered when districts combine every grade – if Newport would agree to combine just administrative roles. As an incentive for Newport, we would receive an additional 28% reimbursement on our ongoing construction projects. Similar financing had been offered in 2019 when Newport sought Middletown’s partnership for one new regional high school. This time however, we could have all the money without the regional schools.
On May 16, a small majority of the Newport City Council voted to send this monumental decision to voters on Election Day, despite my and others’ testimony about the risks of this proposal. Their decision was made without conducting a single meeting that sought strategic input from school committee members, teachers, or parents; without conducting a feasibility study; without creating a shared academic vision and designing facilities to support and enable that vision; without calculating the impacts to school programs and finances that would result from separate schools, or the risks involved in segregating children. Planning was cast aside because RIDE’s current offer of 80.5% reimbursement will expire in 2023. The Councils and managers in both communities chose to build first and figure it out later.
As an elected member of the Newport School Committee, charged in Rhode Island law with “the entire care, control, and management of all public school interests,” I cannot support a frenzied proposal to upend our school system that will not bring students together or put their needs first. The proper intent of a regional district is to create opportunities for students through economies of scale, and it must be thoughtfully designed. The right opportunities will pay dividends. There will be no efficiencies gained by preserving the status quo systems of discipline, hiring, teaching, and learning spread across two high schools and two middle schools.
I urge voters to carefully consider the consequences of creating brand new separate schools in a combined district and weigh the viability of the “endless” opportunities that many are promising. Future benefits are hypothetical without genuine plans focused on equity, inclusivity, and student success. Collaboration, trust, and common goals cannot flourish if we remain apart, isolated in our respective schools. Students will be lost in the tug of war between communities. Is this really the regional school district we all want?