2014-02-21 / Front Page

Interest in Unification Lukewarm

By Jonathan Clancy

The idea of unifying school districts on Aquidneck Island has been an on-again, off-again topic of discussion for many years. Recently Middletown Town Councilors Barbara VonVillas and Richard Adams headed up the Newport County Unified High School Exploratory Committee in hopes of breathing life back into the idea. Although the group reached out to all other Newport County municipalities, Middletown and Newport have been the only communities to send representatives to the committee meetings. The lack of participation from other municipalities has raised concerns for fellow councilors.

“At best, I’m a lukewarm supporter of regionalization with just one other community,” said Middletown Town Council Vice President Robert Sylvia at the council meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 18. Sylvia went on to commend the Middletown School Department for its responsible use of resources. “[Middletown shows a] higher level of student achievement with the same amount of spending compared to other school departments throughout our state,” said Sylvia. The vice president also noted that residents have been expressing their reluctance to him personally. “Some parents in our community are opposed to consolidation, believing the culture and community of their school will be destroyed if we combine with another community,” the councilor said.

Sylvia called for information from the exploratory committee regarding tenured teachers, curriculum tracking, merging administration, the cost of building a new school – that some estimates have said could cost $180 million or more – and the overall impact that regionalization could have on the town’s quality of education. He closed his remarks by encouraging parents and citizens to reach out to Councilors VonVillas and Adams with their questions and to attend the meetings.

Councilor Bruce Long also voiced concern. “The Middletown Planning Committee, chaired by Councilor VonVillas a few years ago, came to agree that there needs to be at least two other communities to split the difference.” He added that commitment from at least three communities is needed to reach critical mass and to increase student diversity, both key components in a successful regionalized program. “For me, the jury is out, but right now I’m less than inclined to regionalize with just one other community,” Long said.

The jury is indeed still out, and the exploratory committee has not been dissuaded. “We never thought this would be easy,” Adams stated after the meeting, adding, “We would have all loved to see three communities together on this, but that’s just not the way it happened.” He said the exploratory committee spoke with the Portsmouth Town Council and the Tiverton School Committee, but both organizations made it clear they were not interested in regionalization. In contrast, he observed that although Jamestown and Little Compton – municipalities that currently send students to other towns for schooling – have not appointed any representatives to attend the meetings, both towns have encouraged the exploratory committee to continue with its studies. “Jamestown even passed a resolution of support,” Adams noted.

The exploratory committee will continue to work toward its goal, even with the council voting 4-3 in favor of removing an item regarding regionalization – specifically to submit legislation to the General Assembly that would authorize Middletown and Newport to hold a referendum to determine whether a regional school district should be established – from the town’s 2014 legislative agenda. Council President Christopher Semonelli and Councilors Adams and VonVillas cast the opposing votes.

While members of the council called for more information, Von- Villas assured them that once the committee has the data they will make it available. “Our purpose is to explore the possibility of moving forward to unify just the 9-12 section of the educational systems,” she said and added, “We have only had three meetings, and you cannot solve all the problems in just six hours.” The councilor also noted that she has been studying the process of regionalization for five years and that the committee is not in a hurry. She mentioned a transition period of two to five years that would be needed to develop an outstanding academic program.

The next exploratory committee meeting will be held Monday, Feb. 24, at 4 p.m. at the CCRI conference room.

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