2018-06-07 / Front Page

Pathways Presented for New Schools

Solutions for Condition, Capacity Issues
By Andy Long

At a meeting of the Ad Hoc Building Committee of the Newport School Committee, held on the evening of June 5, two consultants from StudioJaed, the company the committee has hired to develop plans for addressing current and future facility questions, presented options for solving the committee’s two most important concerns.

In the words of one of them, Phil Conte, “there are two significant issues here [meaning with Newport’s school buildings]. One, we have a capacity issue at Pell and we have a condition issue at the high school.”

Conte went further in talking about Rogers when he added that “educational adequacy” needs to be faced, the phrase referring not to any structural or safety issues with the buildings, but that the configurations and capabilities of its buildings and classrooms don’t match the curricula and activities envisioned in the Newport School Committee’s Strategic Plan.

The capacity problem at Pell is that the school already has 670 students in a school designed for 640. Further, there are currently 66 Pre-K students who are now placed in a leased space at John F. Kennedy Elementary School in Middletown on West Main Road. It costs the committee $112,960 annually to rent the space and it will no longer be available after spring 2020.

Conte presented options for solving the existing overcrowding of Pell and the coming need for space for the Pre-K program, among them buying the now vacant Cluny School and rehabilitating Coggeshall, a closed public school on Van Zandt Ave.

He spoke favorably of turning Cluny, which he inspected last week, into an Early Education Center, where Pre-K and Kindergarten classes would be held. After pointing out that the 8.3-acre property is listed for $2.9 million and that it could be subdivided, allowing for either a lower purchase price for some of the property or the spinoff of a choice building lot, he said, “The existing school [referring to the structure on site] is very appropriate and is in pretty good condition, other than a water leak.”

He went on to note that it is a one-story building, an attractive feature when the students are the very young, but some work would be needed. “You would still require some building addition on to this building to satisfy the Pre-K and K…”

His colleague from Jaed, Kate Jessup, commented that the necessary additions to Cluny so it would be capable of housing all the Pre-K and Kindergarten classes would also create administrative space for support staff and others. Plus, she said, students could begin moving into a purchased Cluny before all the construction would be finished.

A stand-alone Early Learning Center is not a new idea. Newport Public School Superintendent Colleen Jermain, who attended the presentation, said, “When I first arrived at the district, there was some discussion of creating an Early Learning Center. But that came off the table when we looked at the Triplett Building; when they inspected it, the costs were so high for renovation and there was a fear factor of mold, that it wasn’t appropriate for children.”

She also said that an Early Learning Center would open up six classrooms at Pell with the relocation of Kindergarten to the new facility, solving the elementary school’s capacity problem.

Conte has inspected Coggeshall as well and reported that it is in “appalling” condition and would require very costly repairs to ready it for young children. Jessup’s off-the-cuff estimate, based on similar projects, is that it would cost $450 per square foot to rehabilitate it properly. Further concerns for its appropriateness as an Early Learning Center are that it is multi-story, has no elevator and is without fire sprinklers.

But it still could play a role in creating a place for Newport’s youngest students. Conte quoted the realtor who guided him through Cluny and Coggeshall: “The deal maker said, ‘I bet I could find a developer who would buy this and then you could buy Cluny and renovate it.”’ However, Conte didn’t have any estimates for the actual renovation costs for Cluny.

The school committee’s challenges with the future of Rogers High School are two-fold. One, as it now stands, it doesn’t meet the Rhode Island Department of Education’s standards as established in that department’s strategic plan, especially in promoting technology use and personalized learning paths. Jermain, at a June 4 joint meeting of Newport’s school committee and city council, reported that Individual Learning Plans would be created for all students in the sixth grade and above.

The cost to make Rogers capable of meeting current committee goals for educating its students would be $25 million, an estimate made in 2016, during a study of the state’s schools by the state education department. However, Conte said of choosing that option, “…you would only do deferred maintenance… but it does leave an unresolved problem…you are just kicking the can down the road…you have not addressed the educational adequacies of your building.”

Second, if Newport should build a new high school so students could be prepared for their future in the 21st century, it won’t be cheap.

Conte reeled off the numbers for this year: $180 million for East Providence, $220 million for Pawtucket, $6 million for Jamestown, and $45 million for Smithfield. In line for next year: $200 million for Providence, $70 million for Westerly, and $45 million for South Kingstown.

On hearing those numbers, school committee member Rebecca Bolan said, “There goes the money,” as none might be left for a new high school in Newport. The state does not pick up all school construction costs but a portion depending on the community. Providence gets 87 percent of its costs reimbursed by the state while Newport gets 40 percent.

Conte mentioned one scenario in which Newport would wait until 2020 to begin the application process with the state to help with the costs of a new high school, which he mentioned could near $200 million, and fix its problem with not having enough space for its early learners now.

Conte presented an encouraging note for help in buying Cluny, in recounting a conversation with Joseph DaSilva of the Office of Statewide Efficiencies, the office of the state education department that works with supporting local districts. “He said that buying closed Catholic schools is the hottest thing the state is doing now.”

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