Portsmouth officials balk at full school regionalization

Leave door open for more collaboration, however

By Jim McGaw
Posted 10/9/19

NEWPORT — Portsmouth officials said they’re willing to discuss more collaboration with Newport schools going forward, but they stopped short of supporting …

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Portsmouth officials balk at full school regionalization

Leave door open for more collaboration, however

Posted

NEWPORT — Portsmouth officials said they’re willing to discuss more collaboration with Newport schools going forward, but they stopped short of supporting “full-blown regionalization” during a meeting with the city’s mayor, school superintendent and others last week.

The informal gathering, which was intended to set the parameters for a larger discussion the Newport City Council and Portsmouth Town Council plan to have later this fall regarding possible collaborative efforts, was held Thursday, Oct. 3, at Innovate Newport on Broadway. 

The Portsmouth Town Council voted unanimously in June to enter into “discussions” with Newport after a presentation by Colleen Burns Jermain, superintendent of schools in that district.

No members of the media attended last week’s meeting, but The Portsmouth Times viewed a videotape of the 75-minute session.

Local representatives who attended included School Committee Chairwoman Emily Copeland, school board member Allen Shers, Town Council member Keith Hamilton, School Superintendent Ana Riley and Assistant Superintendent Thomas Kenworthy. Mayor Jamie Bova, Ms. Jermain and School Committee Chairman Raymond Gomes represented the City of Newport.

Although the Middletown Town Council voted 5-2 earlier this year to reject any further dialogue about a regional school district or a unified high school, several school representatives from that town showed up as well: School Superintendent Rosemarie Kraeger, School Committee Chairwoman Kellie DiPalma Simeone and school board member Liana Ferreira-Fenton.

“My hope is we remain involved in the conversation,” Ms. Simeone said.

Mayor Bova, however, said the “two true participants” in the upcoming talks will be the councils from Portsmouth and Newport, “because those are the two bodies that have expressed an interest in having these conversations.” Middletown representatives, however, are welcome to attend, she said.

The discussions were sparked after Ms. Jermain reached out to Portsmouth and Middletown, focusing on the physical condition of current public school facilities on Aquidneck Island. She said a unified district could realize significant savings on construction projects. Newport is in dire need of a new high school, while Middletown will need one within eight to 10 years, she said.

Added Ms. Bova, “I’ve always believed that if we had one high school for the entire island, it would be the most cost-effective and probably have the most number of offerings.”

Portsmouth officials, however, said their school needs are very different from Newport’s, and expressed concerns about fully merging the districts.

“Our high school isn’t falling apart,” Ms. Copeland said. “There’s definitely work that can be done, but we’ve got a beautiful new turf field and new renovations to the auditorium. I personally would have a hard time asking Portsmouth taxpayers to build a new high school, when we have a really good facility that needs work, but not at the cost of a new high school.”

The School Committee chairwoman added, “What I heard from the Portsmouth Town Council was they have an appetite for collaboration, but they specifically removed the word ‘regionalization.’”

Mr. Hamilton agreed. “Full-blown regionalization, for me, is never going to pass in Portsmouth, and I don’t think it’s going to pass in Middletown,” he said.

Ms. Copeland also said she wasn’t clear on Newport’s plan going forward. “Newport has a problem with Rogers and I haven’t heard what you see as your options for that,” she said. (At Tuesday night’s Portsmouth School Committee meeting, Ms. Copeland said of Newport officials, “They really need to talk amongst themselves.”)

Opportunities to collaborate

However, all agreed that students come first and there are opportunities for the districts to collaborate more. For example, Mr. Hamilton said he’d like to see a “fully robust” career vocational program for multiple districts come out of the discussions. Rogers has a solid program which PHS sends students to, but it could be greatly expanded, he said.

“I think it would really strengthen the needs of the community, not only for Portsmouth, Middletown and Newport, but also Tiverton, Little Compton, Bristol and Barrington,” Mr. Hamilton said, adding that any talks of collaborating across borders shouldn’t stop at Aquidneck Island.

The councilman also said more could be done to make it possible for students to take the classes they want. Some special AP courses don’t draw enough pupils to justify their inclusion in the curriculum at a single school, he said.

“If Newport’s got six, Middletown’s got six and Portsmouth’s got six, let’s get them together and have 18 students in a class,” he said, adding that tuitions could then be shared to keep budget costs down. “If you’ve got six kids coming out to do AP at Portsmouth High School and we’ve got six kids coming to Newport for a vocational program, then it’s a wash."

His comments were in response to a statement by Mr. Gomes, who said a more collaborative approach could provide extra opportunities for students while avoiding “half-filled classrooms.” Financially pooling money from different districts, he said, “will allow the most bang for the buck.”

Changing the culture

Most officials who attended last week’s meeting agreed there’s less of a cultural pushback on the island for regionalization. Students from other schools already play sports and attend classes together, whether it be at the vocational program at Rogers or the career and technical education (CTE) programs at PHS.

Now there’s more of a “public appetite” for a collaborative approach today because people realize “how connected we all are anyway,” Mayor Bova said. “It feels like less of a barrier to drive from Newport all of the way to Portsmouth,” she said.

Ms. Copeland said the problem isn’t culture, however, but finances. “It does not make any sense for Portsmouth to regionalize with Newport. You look at our debt levels, you look at our costs per student, you look at our contracts … And I think that’s where Middletown’s coming from,” she said.

Help from upstate?

At the June meeting in Portsmouth, Ms. Jermain touted financial bonus incentives from the state for construction projects that begin by the end of 2022, due to the $250 statewide construction bond approved by voters in 2018. By regionalizing two school communities, school construction housing aid reimbursements would potentially reach 80.5 percent.

Portsmouth and Newport would have to bring all grades under a regional district and comply with state building standards to become eligible for the incentives, Ms. Jermain said. Under this scenario, all students would attend the same high school, but pupils would remain in their respective elementary and middle schools, she said.

However, last week Mr. Hamilton reiterated his skepticism that any of the local districts will see that money, which he said will likely be awarded to urban districts.

“For me, it’s not a factor at all because we’re not going to get it, period. That 55 percent that was floated out there for that $250 million?” he said, referring to the state’s pitch that school construction projects could be eligible for as much as 55 percent in state funding. “It’s gone. Providence alone has billions of dollars in renovations to do.” 

Mayor Bova urged everyone to avoid dismissing any options too quickly.

“I don’t want us to start crossing things off too early. It’s important for me to go into it with an open mind,” she said.

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