By Matt Sheley, Town of Middletown. This story originally appeared here.
The Town of Middletown looks like it’s going to pursue a new middle-high school — on its own.
The latest proposal emerged at a school building summit Wednesday night in Town Hall, co-sponsored by the Town Council, School Committee and School Building Committee.
If the project is put forward by the town and approved by voters at a special election — potentially as soon as April — the new 231,000-square-foot building would built on multi-use fields just north of Gaudet Middle School on Aquidneck Avenue.
The preliminary price tag for the new school and administrative offices was $190 million. Based of early totals, the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) would pay about $83 million of that number. The town was also pursuing bonus payments through the state that could bring the total reimbursements up to 60 percent.
As part of the discussion, local leaders said while the door was always open, the community had exhausted all reasonable opportunities now to combine schools or districts with neighboring communities — including the City of Newport.
“It’s a big stretch…” council President Paul M. Rodrigues said. “We need to figure out what the impact is to the residents. Again, it all comes down to dollars. We wish we could do it all right now. We wish we were getting that 80 percent. (It’s) a no brainer, but we’re not. We need to figure out what’s best for the community as a whole today, tomorrow and 30, 40, 50 years down the road.”
“I am very impressed…The presentation you put together tonight was very good, very all encompassing,” council Vice President Thomas Welch III said. “I think it shows that the council and School Committee, we all seem to be on the same page. Everybody seems to be excited about it.”
“We want the same things (the Town Council) wants too. These numbers scare us sometimes too,” School Building Committee Co-Chairman Charlie Roberts said. “What scares us the most is not doing anything and what that’s going to cost us in the long run if we don’t take advantage of these incentives.”
Under the current proposal, Aquidneck and Forest Avenue elementary schools would remain. However, $20 million was set aside in the proposed $190 million bond for upgrades and improvements to stabilize those schools for the foreseeable future.
Longterm, education officials said the goal was to build a new combined pre-kindergarten through fifth grade center, likely at the current location of Middletown High.
But financial advisors and town leaders said Middletown doesn’t have the bonding capacity to borrow enough money to pay for that work now.
Another $7 million was also designated for new administrative offices on the middle-high school campus, something several council members said they’d like to reconsider. Instead, they said they’d rather see those facilities relocated to existing spaces and potentially lower the debt load or apply it to new classroom and learning spaces.
Because of the compressed timeline, school consultants said they would be using the next five weeks doing educational planning, site investigations and concept designs.
From there, partial schematic designs for the new middle-high school would progress through early May, provided the project was approved at a special election.
Building committee members said the way the middle-high school is being designed, there would be room for additions and growth, should Middletown see an influx of new students.
Due to illnesses among top town staff, the specific impacts on the tax rate of the preliminary bond were not available this week. Building committee members and their consultants said that information would be forthcoming in the next few weeks, however.
Rodrigues said without a significant focus on career tech and courses geared toward students who were heading out into the work force, he’d have concerns. Based on estimates, building consultants said the new middle-high school would have a useful life of at least 50 years.
Councilman Christopher Logan said flexibility was critical for the building itself — as well as a strict separation between the middle school and high school.
“We’re talking about two schools on one campus, sixth through eighth and nine through twelve,” Logan said. “There’s a significant difference between a 12-year-old and an 18-year-old.”
In response, building committee members and consultants said the school would be laid out with that specifically in mind. That way, there would be a division among the schools, but they could capitalize on shared resources like the gym and auditorium through scheduling.
Councilman Dennis Turano said it was important the town got the project right, especially with the sums that were being discussed.
“We need to make sure we’re designing the right things and not penalized for not making dates,” Turano said. “The legislators need to stand up. We need to talk to the governor. He’s all about schools. He’s all about affordable housing. Let’s not get pressured into something because we need the dollars.”
According to a November 2021 report, Middletown’s four schools need extensive upgrades and improvements. DBVW Architects of Providence found at least $190 million in repairs were required to the 60-year-old plus buildings. That includes asbestos and mold remediation, upgrades air handling systems, new elevators, windows and other costly projects.
In response, Middletown and Newport officials put an innovative plan before voters in each community on Election Day 2022 to combine school districts through a regional school board. As part of that proposal, Middletown also sought $235 million in bonds for the construction of three new schools in town, more than 80 percent of the cost which would have been covered by the state.
On Nov. 8, Newport voters scuttled the project, leaving at least $50 million in state reimbursements on the table. Within days, residents learned the Rogers High School project was $20 million plus in the hole and deep cuts were needed to the original project.
That triggered a restart of regionalization talks — including two “Community Conversations” about education sponsored by “Newport This Week” newspaper — but those failed to find common ground.
The School Building Committee also retained the services of Colliers International to team with DBVW on the proposal.
At a recent meeting, the School Building Committee voted to support construction of a new state-of-the-art grade 6-12 school on the Gaudet field site. To view an updated abridged version of a report prepared by Colliers Project Leaders, go to Summit Report online.
Because of pending deadlines on state school reimbursement aid, town officials have said the community can’t wait until November 2024 to put its plans before voters at the next regular election.
Instead, a special election is being considered, potentially as early as April. Town Administrator Shawn J. Brown has said when that all depends on how quickly the town can get enabling legislation to the General Assembly and other related issues.
A Jan. 25 report from Hilltop Securities — one of the town’s financial advisors — indicated the town could absorb the $190 million proposal without exceeding the community’s bonding limits.
Hilltop said that would be done by taking a “two-bond approach” for the school construction project. Under those details, Middletown would issue bonds to pay for the project first during the spring of 2023 and then again in spring of 2026 rather than all at once.
That way, Hilltop indicated Middletown could get the lowest cost of borrowing, maintain budget flexibility and maximize the debt service reimbursements from RIDE.
Including a potential $5.4 million open space bond and $25 million library construction bond, the total annual net debt service payment was projected at close to $6.5 million.
Hilltop Securities advisor Matt Blaess said based on his read of the situation, if Middletown was reimbursed from RIDE at the 35 percent rate instead of 52 percent, it was unlikely the town would be able to do the project at all. To read the Hilltop report, visit Hilltop Report online.