For our community the current focus and conversations surrounding education in Newport and Middletown are exciting . However there are many who have serious reservations about the path to regionalization and concerns with the way this very important milestone is being addressed.
As we move quickly through another lovely Rhode Island summer we are aware that in 124 days Newport and Middletown voters are going to be asked to vote on an educational initiatives that will likely affect the children of both communities for generations.
CURRENTLY there are a TON of unanswered and critical questions. This has left many in both communities feeling very confused about the path forward.
We’re doing our best to stay appraised on the path forward and participate in the activities, address the unanswered questions and track the many confusing dates and deadlines.
Here’s a primer for the road ahead.
How Did We get Here?
The topic of regionalization has been talked about and kicked around for decades. In 2014 a unification ballot referendum was rejected in Middletown, but was approved by Newport voters.
As recently as 2019 despite significant financial incentives from the State, Middletown town counselors rejected the overtures of Newport to combine the two school districts.
At the time Middletown’s council cited the town’s strong financial position and the relatively good physical condition of its schools.
Middletown’s rejection set Newport on a path to replace their own deteriorating High School at an estimated cost of $108 Million Dollars. The extraordinary expenditure required a ballot measure. The ballot measure passed overwhelmingly and after years of planning for a new high school work began last week.
Concurrently, Middletown, faced looming costs and prospects of replacing their own facilities (Middletown High was built in 1960 Rodgers in 1957). In March, Middletown’s council expressed their interest in renewing the and reached out to Newport.
Newport Councilors agreed to move the question back to a ballot measure in November. Ultimately Newport and Middletown voters will need to decide.
What’s the Rush
The financial incentives available from the State of RI to both communities are set to expire in 2024. The current incentives set the reimbursement rate from the State at over 80%. While Newport has previously accepted the State’s financial incentives. (at far less than 80%) Middletown will not qualify for the same level of reimbursement on their own. A regionalized school district is the most attractive alternative for Middletown and Newport but since the previous regionalization efforts were declined, a tight set of terms would need to be addressed. In order to achieve this incentive, the new Middletown school would have to start building by the 2024 deadline for both communities to qualify for the highest reimbursement available.
The expiration of these incentives are one reason that the process has been sped up considerably. A careful path to regionalization would have taken years but has been consolidated into less than 5 mos. This is highly unusual and the consultants hired by both communities and RIDE have been candid in their assessments of the timeline and have never delivered a similar consultancy in less time.
What’s in It for Middletown
Middletown’s current school buildings need expensive repairs. The town needs money from the state to afford those repairs, but the state rejected their plan to repair. Instead, the state suggested that the town create a plan to build all new buildings and pursue regionalization with Newport in order to qualify to have up to 80% of the cost of the new buildings paid for by the state. Under this plan, all of the town’s schools would be built new, which the town might not afford on its own.
What’s in It for Newport
The answer here is more layered. Due to the previous rejection of regionalization, Newport has set itself on a path that seemingly can’t be much altered. Many in Newport lament that a regional high school, state of the art in every regard, does not appear to be on the table at this time. The new Rogers high is now under construction and on path for completion in 2024. As Newport wasn’t’ able to convince Middletown to regionalize, compromises were made to make the budget work. Newport had to cut programs and services that many thought were vital for students. Maybe this gets reexamined, but maybe not.
If Newport voters vote YES then there is a possibility of a higher reimbursement rate from the the State for current projects. However, that would depend on Middletown reaching their own set of building goals which will be very aggressive in planning and execution.
It also concerns Newport parents that the increased reimbursement rate for a parallel high school would afford the ‘new’ Middletown High services and operations that were not in view for Newport independently.
Lastly if the reimbursement is obtained there is no guarantee that the money coming back to Newport will stay in education. After years of debate, Newport voters made an audacious move to support education in our community. The bond approved in 2021 addressed the funding shortage from the reimbursement, but the higher reimbursement does not reduce bond value nor is it required to stay in education to address other significant needs. There is a risk here that needs to be discussed.
ARE the Students being Considered?
With all the focus on deadlines and financial incentives there is a growing concern in both communities that a regionalized combined school district is being led by financial considerations rather than academic and student well being. It’s a chorus that has was consistently joined at the joint meetings.
So here at Involve Newport we’re focusing on how we can be good stewards and how we can help our leadership focus on the holistic set of objectives in a short timeline.
Key Questions that need answering:
- What are the key characteristics of the new Regionalized school district There is so much conjecture and misinformation already on several fronts. These questions need to be addressed in open forum not decided by a select few.
- If two small high schools are built (which seems to be the prevailing focus currently), will the two communities maintain independent sports programs, arts programs, transportation or will real regionalization be the focus.
- Will there be grade level combinations of students?
- How can we plan for a combination of two diverse school districts and the cultural and community impacts?
- How can we be assured that services offered in one location wont’ effectively exclude or ‘redline’ students on the other side of the district?
- How will this savings to taxpayers be realized?
- Will be monies be earmarked for education?
- What are the educational and teaching goals of the regionalization, can the communities expect a higher educational performance?
- What will the effect on teachers and administrators be?
- What will a YES vote mean in November?
- What will a NO vote mean in November.
We know that a NO vote won’t necessarily end the discussions, but could create an even more cloudy path forward.
To echo the comments of outgoing Newport Town Councilor Jamie Bova in one of her recent emails:
It remains very unclear what the students would gain from regionalizing only our administration, and whether this administrative change would benefit Newport at all.
In the weeks to come we’ll be participating in the process wherever possible and talking about it with all related parties. Follow Along: