Portsmouth asked to take another look at regionalization

Portsmouth High School

PORTSMOUTH — Middletown officials pleaded their case for an Aquidneck Island regional high school to a mostly skeptical Town Council Tuesday night.

Portsmouth High SchoolThe Middletown Town Council has asked the town to appoint two members from both the council and the School Committee to serve on a Unified High School Exploratory Committee to study the issue. The School Committee voted unanimously Oct. 22 to reject the request to participate in the study, and asked the council not to appoint anyone to the exploratory committee.

“We wish the Town of Middletown success with other communities but do not believe this is in the best interest of Portsmouth residents, students and employees at this time,” School Committee Chairman David Croston stated in an Oct. 24 e-mail to Council President James Seveney and others. “We remain open to discuss the value of combined services and in continuing our present purchasing collaboratives.”

That didn’t stop Middletown Town Council members Barbara VonVillas, Richard Adams and Chris Semonelli from trying to convince the council to take a further look at the idea, however.

Past studies into regionalization didn’t go anywhere, Ms. VonVillas said, but things have changed since then. “Things are not sustainable now. We have increasing costs and decreasing revenue,” she said.

Ms. VonVillas presented figures that purported to show that larger regional schools were not only cheaper in terms of per-pupil spending, but they outperformed smaller schools in SAT scores, standardized testing and graduation rates. “The larger enrollment can provide maximum opportunity which leads to better performance at potentially lower costs,” she said.

A larger school enrollment would provide many more options to student for learning, said Ms. VonVillas, who taught at Middletown High School until 1989. “At that time there were 1,250 students, which is more than you have at Portsmouth. Now there are 750 students,” she said. “When I was teaching at the school there was a greenhouse program, a child development program. Those things no longer exist. As we get lower with the numbers, everything costs more. You can’t do with the smaller numbers what you can do with the larger numbers.”

Several council members questioned why the Middletown councilors were using a Massachusetts school — specifically Wachusett Regional High School, which serves five communities in 55 square miles — rather than one of the two regional high schools in Rhode Island as a comparison. Massachusetts, they pointed out, tests its students differently.

“We were looking to a school of 2,000 students. That’s our goal,” said Ms. VonVillas, adding that the MCAS test in Massachusetts “is very close to what you have here.”

Council member Keith Hamilton said he was part of a previous study group that looked at regionalization. “It was a lot of work that went nowhere. The cost seems prohibitive,” he said.

He also asked about vocational opportunities at the proposed regional school, pointing out that the island suffers from a shortage of people with trade jobs such as electricians and plumbers. Ms. VonVillas said the vocational part of the education would be built into the school.

Responding to a question from Mr. Seveney, she said she couldn’t promise lower educational costs for taxpayers. “I can tell you that your students will do better, I can tell you that you students will be better prepared,” she said.

Council member Molly Magee questioned the exploratory committee’s “aggressive” timetable. According to Ms. VonVillas, it would start holding initial meetings this month and next, then have bi-monthly meetings from January to April 2014. The committee would seek enabling legislation for the regional school from May to June before seeking a binding referendum in November 2014.

“I think it takes more time than what you’ve got,” Ms. Magee said.

Ms. Vonvillas said that proponents of the island-wide school know that Portsmouth is resistant of regionalization. “We understand that you like your school system; we aren’t casting aspersions on that. We’re here because we believe every school in Newport County should know what we’re doing. There are no secrets here,” she said, adding that the group was simply asking the town to participate in some meetings, not to agree to anything.

Mr. Hamilton said he had no problem attending some meetings on regionalization. “I think in general that education on the island … needs to get better, period,” he said.

The council took no action on the request. Mr. Seveney said the council would need to speak to the School Committee before making any decisions.

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