About a month ago, Middletown announced it was working with the City of Newport to potentially unify schools systems — with caveats.
Since then, it’s largely been radio silence on the ambitious hybrid plan — at least publicly.
But behind the scenes, local officials have been busy lining up the pieces to get everything ready to put before Middletown voters on Election Day, Nov. 8. With Town Council approval, that includes legalese for the new unified school district to operate under one shared administration and school committee, while each community would maintain their separate school buildings.
On Thursday night, the School Building Committee met in the Oliphant administration building to discuss another key component for the first time. With a palpable excitement in the room, those on hand heard about preliminary plans to build a new combined Middletown High and Gaudet Middle school at the Gaudet campus between Aquidneck Avenue and Turner Road and a combined kindergarten through sixth grade school at the Valley Road property now home to Middletown High.
According to the preliminary estimates, the Town could get two new buildings constructed for around $40 million. That would happen with an 80 percent plus reimbursement on new construction now being offered by the state Department of Education. That’s about $20 million less than previously discussed plans to remodel Middletown High only, which is around 60 years old like the district’s other three schools.
Although it’s still early in the process, local leaders said there could be two ballot questions before voters on Election Day. One was whether to move forward with the hybrid unification model with Newport. The other was whether to approve a $200 million bond, with at least 80 cents on the dollar reimbursement guaranteed by RIDE.
“From a financial standpoint, this would set the Town up probably for the next 50 plus years,” Town Council President Paul M. Rodrigues said. “And not just financially. The kids, just as important, if not more importantly, from an educational standpoint, they would be getting a better education and I think that’s really what everyone is driving towards. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think it would come to this.”
“The educational value here is absolutely incredible,” Superintendent Rosemarie K. Kraeger said. “When you talk about the options for our kids, and this is about our kids, going to the high school and middle school. The support services, the advanced services, they’re all there.”
School Committee Chairwoman Theresa Spengler reminded those on hand that the discussion couldn’t be just about dollars and cents.
“The dollars and cents is obviously a very critical factor in the selling of this whole potential endeavor we’re looking at here,” Spengler said. “But there’s also another part of this process that’s not dollars and cents. It’s employees. It’s unions. It’s administration. It’s the students. I think we have to remember the students as part of this process because they’re the ones who are going to be living it.”
Sitting in the basement meeting room of Oliphant, Building Committee members talked openly with other heavy hitters in the community about the plan, describing it as “exciting” and “groundbreaking.” From the beginning of the conversation, each of the more than a dozen people on hand agreed everyone had to work together if Middletown moved forward.
Town Solicitor Peter B. Regan said in order for the hybrid unification plan to progress should it get the go ahead by the Town Council, both questions needed to be okayed by voters in each community.
He added the approval of the bonding and new schools was critical now because it would put Newport and Middletown on an equal footing in terms of facilities. The way things would work, Regan said Middletown would be responsible for the $200 million in debt if it’s approved by voters, with 80 percent of those costs covered by RIDE.
Once the hybrid unification was in place, Regan said Newport and Middletown would be responsible for sharing capital expenses together.
“Right now, funds are available (from the state)…” Regan said. “We don’t know how long that window is going to be open. If this is going to happen, it would need to happen quickly…
“For this process to work, you don’t want to have one community with new schools (Newport) and the other community with schools at the end of their useful life (Middletown) because once you become a regional district, everybody pays for everything.”
Consultant Ed Cifune of DBVW Architects said a key component of the plan was the existing Middletown High, Gaudet Middle and Aquidneck and Forest Avenue schools would remain open throughout construction. That way, students and staff wouldn’t be impacted by the ongoing work or shuffled from site to site. Nor would there be a need for temporary classroom trailers.
Throughout the discussion, those on hand agreed that the details were very preliminary. Consultant Doug Brown of DBVW Architects said his firm DBVW Architects had about a week to put together the plans for the new combined high school and middle school and the combined elementary school.
With that in mind, he said the location of items like fields, parking lots and other amenities could change. But the most important items of the location of the two new combined buildings worked — and seemed to get overwhelming positive feedback.
Based on the preliminary models, the new three-story combined high school and middle school would be built largely on the open multipurpose fields that were once home to the Starlight Drive-In. In the middle of the school, a new 500-600 seat auditorium, gymnasium and cafeteria and other shared space would be built. The populations of the high school and middle schools would be kept separate during the school day.
On the high school campus, a new two-story elementary school would replace the existing school, largely in the footprint of the current structure.
Although they were just ideas, local leaders said the Aquidneck School site could potentially be used for field space, with the Forest Avenue location potentially designated for affordable housing. Town officials said there were ongoing discussions happening now about the potential to acquire other space for fields too, but nothing has been finalized yet.
Typically, when communities opt to regionalize their schools, Chapter 16 of state law provides the template. Schools combined together, made up of students and staff from each of the member communities and everything is merged together.
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 involved said another course was selected using special legislation instead.
The Town and city and their attorneys have been crafting legislation together to guide the unification process. In addition to approval from the Newport and Middletown councils, the draft legislation needs to be okayed by the General Assembly.
The Middletown council meets in executive session Wednesday night in Town Hall to go over that proposed legislation for the first time. A time for that session was not set as of Thursday night, but Town officials said the conversation needed to be private because collective bargaining and other legal issues were involved in those talks.
Town officials said a public community briefing will be scheduled a short time later to detail the process and what’s next to residents, business people and others once all legal questions are addressed.
In coming weeks, the Town and city will be leaning on the assistance of a team of consultants from RIDE and Brown University paid for entirely by the state to help structure the process.
Last fall, the School Building Committee learned Middletown’s four schools needed at least $190 million in upgrades to fix existing problems. Those figures did not include other desired items like construction of a district auditorium, adequate gymnasium and library space in the elementary schools and other features standard for 21st century schools.
In response, the Town Council said that was too much money to spend on the schools alone, particularly when there were other pressing needs in the community. The Town’s bond counsel also advised the community that going out for even half of the $190 million would max out the community’s bonding capacity and likely have negative long-term repercussions.
As a potential solution, enter the revived unification talks. Earlier this year, council President Paul M. Rodrigues approached Newport Mayor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano about whether the city would be interested in revisiting the idea.
Since, the idea has snowballed and dominated the agenda of Middletown Town Administrator Shawn J. Brown, with almost daily calls and conversations with the city and RIDE lining up details.
For Middletown, there are multiple selling points of the potential arrangement. For one, the community could replace every one of its aging buildings with state-of-the-art facilities for 20 cents on the dollar.
Middletown and Newport could also keep their own schools, sports teams, bands and identities, with each institution having a proud tradition that would not be lost.
RIDE numbers indicate 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 could specialize in certain areas like engineering, robotics and pre-med, with Rogers High School in Newport focusing on others. That way, each school could build even stronger offerings without expending precious resources duplicating services.
Modern buildings could also dramatically reduce the close to $700,000 spent on building utilities like electricity, heat and water, netting long-term savings for Middletown.
“This is really the biggest package of tax relief a Middletown taxpayer could expect to get,” Brown said. “That is the reality of it.”
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