2018-06-07 / Around Town

Council Declines Regionalization

By Christopher Allen

Urged on by council member Barbara VonVillas in a May 29 memorandum, the Middletown Town Council again broached the subject of unifying the high schools in Middletown and Newport at its June 4 meeting.

After an hour-long discussion with State Senator Louis DiPalma, the council voted down a measure to offer up a commission comprised of officials from Newport and Middletown to study the costs and benefits of school regionalization in anticipation of possible partial reimbursement through the $250 million public school infrastructure bond.

In her letter, VonVillas wrote that there is not likely to be a better opportunity for such a move.

“Perhaps it is time to reconsider high school consolidation, which would expand the educational opportunities for both communities” she wrote.

VonVillas said that the school funding situation faced by Middletown in recent years is likely to become worse, citing the recent battle between the town and school department over the allocation for the 2018-2019 academic year, which was at times highly combative.

“Education costs money. It’s hard to do it when you don’t have enough funding,” she said. “And we’ve just been through a very bruising period of time [for the school district] during the last two budget meetings. Things are not going to get any better.”

Rhode Island voters will decide in November on a $250 million bond to repair public schools throughout Rhode Island. A report completed by Jacobs Engineering in September 2017 found that the schools need $2.2 billion in repairs to update facilities. The report identified Newport’s Rogers High School as needing $51.4 million over the next five years, with a total replacement cost of $73.8 million. Rogers was specifically identified as being in the direst condition statewide and therefore a candidate for replacement.

The report set Middletown High School’s fiscal need at $18.5 million. The discrepancy between communities made some council members apprehensive about further studying the option, citing a dearth of long-term benefits coupled with an immediate decrease in local control of educational programming and financing.

Both communities took up the possibility of combining high schools in a 2014 referendum. Newport voters approved the move, while Middletown voters declined.

DiPalma, who represents Newport and Middletown, spoke to the council on the particulars of the infrastructure bond, offering his services if Middletown decides to move forward. He identified the tiered system of reimbursement incentives the state will be offering districts who choose to take up construction improvement projects on their own. Although there will be a baseline reimbursement percentage of 35 percent, the percentage will rise according to certain state legislated stipulations, such as projects that focus on enhancing educational opportunities. There may also be additional bonuses for districts that regionalize or combine resources.

“It’s a cost issue and it’s an educational programming issue. [Regionalization] is something that the council will have to move forward with,” he said. “It is an unprecedented time. The train is leaving the station with regards to Newport.”

DiPalma acknowledged the challenge town officials face by willingly surrendering jurisdiction they currently enjoy, as well as an apprehension about placing trust in state initiatives. According to current state statute, any regional school committee resulting from the merging of the high schools would apportion representatives according to population. Therefore, Newport could conceivably have greater representation on such a committee due to its higher number of residents. However, the law could be revised.

“I think the language in the chapter [relating to committee representation] could be modified to support what everyone wanted,” DiPalma said.

Council member Paul Rodrigues, explaining his opposition to consolidation, said, “At the end of the day, I don’t trust the state. Numbers change. Legislators change. Governments change. Plans change.”

The next council meeting will be June 18.

In other matters

The council voted to:

Approve engineering and design firm VHB’s 30 percent design plan for sidewalk and roadway upgrades planned for the Atlantic Beach District.

Accept the offer of the non-profit Daffodil Project to plant 50,000 daffodils at Dunlop Wheeler Park. The daffodils are valued at $29,500.

Sponsor a tee box in the amount of $100 for the Newport County NAACP Annual Golf Tournament on June 30 at Green Valley Country Club.

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