The Town of Middletown issued the following press release on Wednesday night saying that their officials pledged to do what’s right and best for local students at a meeting Wednesday night, saying important decisions need to be made in coming weeks.
Middletown moving forward to improve schools, How to be answered quickly
It looks like the Town of Middletown is shifting gears with what to do about its aging school buildings.
At a School Building Committee meeting from the Oliphant Administration Building, members of the volunteer group opened by thanking Middletown voters for the overwhelming support on Nov. 8.
From there, school building board members talked about potential next steps, which included everything from continuing to pursue three new schools for $235 million on its own, building a new high school alone, going for a new pre-kindergarten through eighth grade building or other options.
Whatever happens, Town Administrator Shawn J. Brown made it clear everything needed to move quickly or the community risked losing building bonuses from the state. That included the potential of seeking enabling legislation early in 2023 to clear the way for a special election in April — pending Town Council approval.
The discussion Wednesday night came after Newport voters rejected regionalization on Election Day, leaving close to $50 million in state aid on the table in the process and despite sweeping support in town for the plan.
“We do have to take care of our kids,” Superintendent Rosemarie K. Kraeger said. “Our schools have been exposed and they’re not in great shape. Let’s come up with ‘The Plan’ for our students and our community. I know we could probably get 50 plus percent (reimbursement) if ‘The Plan’ has a few more tweaks and maybe up to 62 percent.”
Before the town did anything, elected officials in attendance — led by sitting council President Paul M. Rodrigues — said they wanted to reach out again to Newport and Portsmouth to see whether there was an appetite to pursue regionalization.
If there’s interest and the timeline worked, Rodrigues said it could potentially save every community money and provide better schools and opportunities for students, educators and staff.
If not, Rodrigues and others agreed Middletown should move forward on its own and do what’s right for Middletown students, teachers and the community itself.
He and other town leaders in attendance pledged to take up that call over the next two weeks before the School Building Committee met again on Nov. 30 at 3 pm from Oliphant. Town staff also agreed to get information and feedback from financial experts and others about Middletown’s bonding capabilities and other information to present to the entire group.
That way, everyone at the Nov. 30 “Planning Meeting” had the best information possible to make the most informed decision about how best to move forward to address the deficiencies with the Middletown schools.
“We gave it everything we had,” School Building Committee Co-Chairman Charlie Roberts said of the Election Day results. “There’s a lot of stuff going on in Newport and some of us attended a meeting there on Monday…It’s pretty sad to see the information that was withheld from (Newport) voters, but that’s in their town and there’s nothing we can do about it. We need to concentrate on our kids at this point.”
“I want to thank the people that went out there and slugged it out…” fellow building committee Co-Chairman Ed Brady said. “I thank you for your efforts that you put forth. The main thing for us right now is we’ve got to come up with some options and I would like to say ‘Let’s not call it Plan B. Let’s call it The Plan.’ It’s important that people know it wasn’t our decision not to proceed. It was the decision of 400 voters in Newport.”
According to an independent November 2021 report, Middletown’s four schools are in need of extensive upgrades and improvements. That study by DBVW Architects found at least $190 million in repairs were required, everything from asbestos and mold remediation to upgrades air handling systems, new elevators, windows and other costly work.
Previously, the schools started the process with the state Department of Education for reimbursements of “Band-Aids” to each of the buildings. That proposal was nixed by RIDE, which said it wanted to see more improvements to the educational environment.
Shifting gears with the regionalization plan on the Nov. 8 ballot, Middletown voters overwhelmingly approved a $235 million bond to clear the way for construction of a new middle-high school and combined elementary school, plans from DBVW and HMFH Architects of Cambridge, Massachusetts. But because regionalization was rejected in Newport, that plan and its 80.5 percent reimbursement from RIDE was now off the table.
Wednesday’s meeting was the first for the School Building Committee since Election Day.
The session drew a good amount of interest. That included the dozen people around the table from the basement meeting room, including sitting council Vice President Thomas P. Welch III and multiple members of the media, Councilman elect Peter Connerton and ex council members Terri Flynn and Antone Viveiros.
Midway through the session, School Committee member Tami Holden asked the question on everyone’s mind — Was regionalization dead?
School building board member Bill Nash said without having that item answered first, it would be difficult for him — and many people in the community — to support whatever came next. It was noted several times during the hour and a half discussion that officials in Portsmouth were meeting Wednesday night too to discuss the possibility of building a new middle school there.
“I’ll gladly make any contacts you want…” Rodrigues told the board from his seat in the audience. “We need to find out whether, based on the new circumstances, if they’re is any interest moving forward and if there’s not, I’m not sure we should waste our time there.”
Whatever the school building group recommended, members said more information would need to be provided about the long-term costs of not replacing the schools, which are 60 plus years and older.
Led by Brady, the building board said residents — and voters — needed to be shown how the longer the older buildings were going to be kept afloat, the more problems and money they’d need to be maintained.
“The longer we keep operating them, the more it’s going to cost us and that money just keeps flowing,” Brady said. “We’re sitting here and maybe the plan is to fix Aquidneck (Elementary School) so we can get through and that’s gone and we don’t know how much everything is going to cost us because it’s a big unknown.”
Citing the extremely tight deadline, the town administrator Brown said everyone needed to be pulling in the same direction to come up with the best possible solution.
“We need to put the options on the table and figure out what the pros and cons are of each,” Brown said. “It’s up to the elected officials about whether we’re going to be working with Newport and Portsmouth to do that.”