The Town Council chose Monday night to go in on an “opportunity of a lifetime” for the Middletown schools.
Due to a compressed timeline to get the matter before the General Assembly, the council voted 7-0 in Town Hall to pursue a $235 million bond proposal to build all new Middletown schools that could go before voters on Election Day as well as legal language to create a regional school system with the City of Newport.
Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) officials have said the state will pay at least 80 cents of every dollar for the bond, by far the best deal Middletown has ever seen. As a result, Middletown taxpayers would be on the hook for about $46 million for the new state-of-the-art schools.
This opportunity came about unexpectedly for both Middletown and Newport under the regionalization model, which would be governed by a joint School Committee, Finance Committee and school administration.
One of the aspects that makes this version of regionalization different is Middletown students would go to class at Middletown schools and Newport students will continue to attend Pell Elementary, Thompson Middle and Rogers High schools unless they chose to attend a specific program offered in the other community.
Before the proposal goes to voters, the Middletown Town Council must decide in August whether to move forward formally and place the $235 million bond and regionalization language on the Nov. 8 ballot, with the Newport City Council determining about the regionalization language alone.
“It’s been said several times leading up to Monday night, but this really is an opportunity of a lifetime,” Town Administrator Shawn J. Brown said. “This is something that just sort of fell into our laps, but it’s not too good to be true. This is a reality and once all the information is rolled out, we’re confident our voters will see how this could be the biggest tax break we’ve ever received as a community and will be better for every student from an educational standpoint too. We keep talking about the money we’re going to be saving, but the lasting legacy will be the improved education our children will realize for generations to come.”
“There’s a historic amount of money that’s available that’s never been available before,” council President Paul M. Rodrigues said. “It’s not sustainable for the taxpayers of the Town of Middletown to spend and put a ‘Band-Aid’ on it and then have to come back and ask for another $100 million and we’d still have old buildings. Or do we want to spend $46 million and regionalize from a governance perspective and have two brand new facilities.”
Rodrigues also apologized to the City of Newport, its residents and leaders for how some officials treated the City-By-The-Sea previously when they sought assistance from its neighbors to the north. Admitting that it wasn’t Middletown’s best moment, Rodrigues said he personally said he was sorry to Mayor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano, something he hoped everyone in Newport understood that a great partnership awaited with the town.
“This could set this town up financially and educationally for the next 30, 40, 50 years and that’s what’s important here,” Rodrigues said. “It’s not about me, what I think. I’m going to make a decision based on the facts.”
If everything is okayed by voters, a new combined high school-middle school would go at the former Starlight Drive-In property that are now multi-use fields at 1225 Aquidneck Ave. next to Gaudet Middle School.
Grades six through eight would go to classes in one part of the building completely separate from the high school grades nine through 12. Initial planning shows the building would share a 500-600 seat auditorium, a cafeteria and library media center. Importantly, middle and high school students would not be in those spaces together.
The combined elementary school would be constructed on part of the existing footprint of Middletown High at 120 Valley Road. Eventually, both Aquidneck and Forest Avenue elementary schools would closed after construction of the new combined elementary school was complete. A pre-kindergarten center for Middletown youngsters will be built on the new elementary school campus at 120 Valley Road, creating a synergy around early childhood education there.
The way the school construction project is phased, temporary trailers would not be needed. Construction of the combined high school-middle school would come first, with students staying in the existing buildings until work wrapped up there. Then, building would begin at the Valley Road campus for the new elementary school, with the Aquidneck and Forest Avenue schools staying in service until they were no longer needed.
Construction of the new schools would be overseen by the Town, with substantial input from school administrators, teachers and other educators playing an important role.
Although it’s early in the process, Town leaders have floated the idea of eventually using the entire Aquidneck School site at 70 Reservoir Road for community ballfields. As for the Forest Avenue property at 315 Forest Ave., that location has been considered for affordable housing.
Under the terms of the regionalization model, Middletown’s taxpayers would be responsible for paying the $47 million in debt for the new local schools. Per bonding requirements, the Town has to borrow the entire $235 million, but pay only 20 percent of that amount per an ironclad agreement with the state.
RIDE officials have said Newport would receive about $50 million immediately back from the state to help pay off its new Rogers High School, one of the many benefits of the deal for the City-By-The-Sea. The city would also get a better rate of reimbursement for Rogers and the Pell School addition.
After the regionalized school district is established, the responsibilities for paying for future projects would be the joint responsibility of both communities.
Because there are so many moving pieces, the Town Council recently asked the Town’s Open Space & Fields Committee to review the community’s existing athletic fields and potential impacts of the new school construction. The goal would be to make sure every field that currently exists would be replaced with an equal — or better — facility.
The idea for Middletown and Newport to join forces with their schools arose again in March. That came about after Middletown officials learned the community was facing at least $190 million in repairs and upgrades to its four existing schools.
Usually, when communities regionalize their schools, Chapter 16 of state law provides the template. Schools are combined together made up of students and staff from each of the member communities and everything is merged.
However, because the situation between Middletown and Newport is so unique, the deadline so tight and so many amendments would have been required to Chapter 16, officials said the special legislation made the most sense instead.
Since then, officials from both communities have been working almost round the clock to hammer out details of the proposed arrangement, from how labor issues would be dealt with to how the regional school district would be comprised.
RIDE leaders have outlined a number of benefits of the regionalization model. To assist with the process, the state is providing the services of consultants from RIDE and the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University free of charge to Middletown and Newport.
For Middletown, there are multiple selling points. For one, the community could replace every one of its aging 50 and 60 year old buildings with state-of-the-art facilities for 20 cents on the dollar.
Should voters approve the regionalization model, the community would save close to $150 million and get new school buildings, not “Band Aids” on the facilities it already has.
Middletown and Newport can also keep their own schools, sports teams, bands and identities, with each institution having a proud tradition that would not be lost.
Modern buildings could also dramatically reduce the close to $700,000 spent on utilities like electricity, heat and water, netting long-term savings for Middletown.
The new Regional School District would go live on July 1, 2024. RIDE officials have said there could be at least $2.5 million in annual savings to Middletown from duplicate administrative costs on salaries, central office functions and business operations.
The collaboration would also result in improved offerings in the classrooms of both communities, particularly at the high school level.
Educational leaders have talked about how Middletown High and Rogers High could specialize in different areas, enabling both schools to build even stronger offerings without expending precious resources duplicating services.
Starting in the next couple weeks, Middletown and Newport officials will meet with RIDE leaders and Brown University consultants to investigate the specific academic benefits to students of the regionalization model.
Middletown officials have said one will certainly be getting the districts aligned with curriculum and making sure what’s taught in each grade builds better on what was learned at prior grade levels.
Importantly, the enabling legislation that’s expected to go to the General Assembly next week guarantees existing employees under a collective bargaining agreement the same or a substantially similar job.
Under Section 4 of the 25-page document, it specifies “All employees employed by the respective school committees as of June 30, 2024, who are subject to a collective bargaining agreement, will be offered employment by the regional school district in the same position or a substantially similar position, subject to the terms of the applicable collective bargaining agreement. Any such employee who on the date of his or her employment with the regional school district is on tenure may continue thereafter to serve on a tenure basis. All employees who become employees of the regional school district shall be given full credit for the period of their employment with the local school committees of the respective member towns for the purposes of seniority, pensions and all other relevant purposes.”
Middletown and Newport have retained a labor attorney to answer questions and help navigate the differences between the various contracts and agreements. Middletown officials also said pension debt and other legacy benefits will be the responsibility of the original community, not the regional district.
In terms of the non-partisan election of the new Regional School Committee, that would take place in November 2023. Voters in each community would vote on a ballot of at-large candidates from both Middletown and Newport.
The top three vote getters from each Middletown and Newport would be elected to the new Regional School Committee. From there, the seventh member would be named based on the highest remaining number of votes, whether from Middletown or Newport.
To start, the special legislation spelled out that each member of the first Regional School Committee has a three-year term. During the next election for Regional School Committee in Nov. 2026, the special legislation specified candidates would serve two-year terms.
In the interim before the new district launched in July 1, 2024, the Regional School Committee would be responsible for picking the administration for the district, including a superintendent, assistant and other administrative jobs.
A new joint Finance Committee would control the pursestrings of the district. The way the arrangement is set up, if there are four Newport members on the School Committee itself, Middletown would have the majority on the Finance Committee. Payments to the district from Middletown and Newport would be based on enrollment.
Despite being led by a Regional School Committee and administration, the town administrator Brown said Middletown’s schools would retain what makes them special.
“Middletown High School will continue to field its own football and girls basketball teams, its own bands, its own art programs and classes,” Brown said. “We know we have special teachers and staff and none of that will change. The same is true for Rogers. (Newport and Middletown) will continue to play each other in sporting events and share resources wherever it makes sense.
“This is all really exciting and the sense of partnership and camaraderie we’re forming with Newport is only growing and we’re so thankful for their interest and involvement to get us to this point. Regionalization has been talked about for decades and we’re closing in on a groundbreaking agreement that will be a model across Rhode Island and makes sense for everyone for so many reasons, all of them positive.”
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