Portsmouth agrees to discuss merging school district with Newport

‘We have to listen with an open mind,’ council member says

By Jim McGaw
Posted 6/25/19

PORTSMOUTH — “School regionalization” is a dirty phrase to many Portsmouth residents, but the Town Council Monday night said the time has come to at least explore the …

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Portsmouth agrees to discuss merging school district with Newport

‘We have to listen with an open mind,’ council member says


PORTSMOUTH — “School regionalization” is a dirty phrase to many Portsmouth residents, but the Town Council Monday night said the time has come to at least explore the possibility of merging its public schools with another district to save money and provide more educational opportunities for students.

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

“Public education is changing a lot and I’d like to just have a discussion," said Ms. Jermain, who gave each council member a small gift bag filled with candy at the start of her presentation. “You can stop the process any time you want.”

Last week Ms. Jermain made a similar pitch to the Middletown Town Council, which voted 5-2 to reject any further dialogue about a regional school district or a unified high school.

She found a more receptive audience in Portsmouth Monday night. Council members said while they weren’t sold on the idea, the town shouldn’t reject the idea of at least sitting down with Newport officials to talk, because some positive things could come out of the discussion.

“I think it’s important to think outside the box,” said council member Daniela Abbott. While the Portsmouth school district does great things, there’s always room for improvement, she said. “We have to listen with an open mind.” 

One of the main thrusts of Ms, Jermain’s presentation focused on the physical condition of current public school facilities on Aquidneck Island, and how a unified district could realize big savings on construction projects.

“We definitely need a (new) high school in Newport,” she said, adding that Middletown will need a new high school within eight to 10 years. “That prompted the discussions.”

Financial bonus incentives from the state, for construction projects that begin by the end of 2022, are now possible due to the $250 statewide construction bond approved by voters in 2018, she said. 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. Under this scenario, all students would attend the same high school (Ms. Jermain said it would be a “state-of-the-art” facility), but pupils would remain in their respective elementary and middle schools.

“You can maintain your present structures you have in your communities, and just unify the high school,” Ms. Jermain said. Some students from Newport and Portsmouth already attend classes in the other district’s high school, she pointed out.

“Some of your students go to our career and tech center and now we send some of our students to Portsmouth,” she said, referring to PHS’ own career technical education programs that are offered to students outside the district. “Students no longer have to really be in four walls.” 

If the districts decided to create a unified high school only, they could realize a maximum reimbursement rate of 62.5 percent. Each additional regionalized grade would receive 2 percent more on the reimbursement rate.

Such significant cost-savings would relieve taxpayers’ burden and “makes it possible for all of us to still live in our communities,” she said.

Town officials respond

Ms. Abbott said the town should embrace the opportunity to “think outside the box” with Newport and keep all options on the table, including regionalization. There are 14 public schools on Aquidneck Island and with the sole exception of Claiborne Pell Elementary School in Newport, none of them are in great shape, she said.

“In my opinion, they all need to be replaced in the next 10 years,” Ms. Abbott said. “We’re struggling to keep up with what our schools need and what our communities need.”

Allen Shers, a member of the School Committee who works as a Realtor, also supported exploring the issue with Newport. He said building a new school would cost at least $100 million.

“Building a high school for 600 children is not cost-effective. It makes no sense,” Mr. Shers said.

He also said a unified high school with a larger student population would make it easier for the district to offer courses that pupils want to take.

Another school board member, Fred Faerber III, also supported a conversation with Newport on unifying the districts. “I’m disappointed, frankly, that Middletown chose to throw the whole thing out,” he said.

School Committee member Thomas Vadney questioned Ms. Jermain on several points in her presentation, and indicated he was skeptical that Portsmouth’s school buildings are currently in dire need of repairs or replacement.

“We’ve been continually habilitating them and renovating them,” he said, adding that all of the district’s schools are equipped with “state-of-the-art” security measures. “The idea that our schools are falling down … is completely false.”

Council member Keith Hamilton said he didn’t trust the state to live up to its part of the bargain when it comes to funding such a plan. He also said Ms. Jermain shouldn’t restrict the unification plan to just Aquidneck Island, suggesting that Tiverton should also be considered.

Council member Leonard Katzman brought up the 2009 Aquidneck Island Consolidation Feasibility Study, which was released by the R.I. Public Expenditure Council in conjunction with the Aquidneck Island Advisory Group. Each of the six regionalization models presented in the report, Mr. Katzman noted, would have cost Portsmouth more money.

Still, he supported having a larger dialogue with Newport, as long as the School Committee took the lead. “I would be in favor of having conversations — just talk,” he said.

Council member Andrew Kelly made a motion to "continue to discuss the possibilities of working together to provide the best educational opportunities for all of our students," which was approved in a 7-0 vote.

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