2014-06-26 / Around Town

Big Questions – Little Input

By Jacquelyn Moorehead

An informational forum about Newport and Middletown high school unification let locals ask questions concerning the Nov. 4, non-binding referendum question, “Should Newport and Middletown join together to form a Unified High School?” The forum was the first the Newport County Unified High School Exploratory Committee held to educate voters on the ballot question.

The League of Women Voters of Newport County sponsored the Monday, June 23, meeting at the Community College of Rhode Island. The committee, led by Middletown Councilors Richard P. Adams and Barbara VonVillas, began looking at unification at the beginning of the year. The purpose of the ballot question, as well as the forum, is to measure community support and hear concerns.

Moderater Patty MacLeish, LWV, and committee members repeatedly reminded speakers, “The question you are voting on is whether or not you want the committee to go forward and look at this question.” The nearly 25 locals in attendance were the first to publicly discuss with the committee what the referendum question means and what steps the committee will take next.

Theresa S. Spengler, Middletown School Committee Chair, spoke to the group multiple times, questioning the details and motives behind the ballot question. “It is nonbinding, but if people are not informed, then it’s really hard to make an educated decision,” she said.

The committee said one reason to consider unification was lowering costs, but the main concern is offering the best quality education for students. Other reasons the group cited are inadequate funding, lower enrollment, a declining and aging population, and a decreasing workforce reflecting economic growth.

“This is not sustainable,” Von- Villas said. “Both schools needed extra money this year; the council will not have the ability to hand out money like we did this year.” She said with both schools requiring renovations, towns would not be able to support costs without raising taxes.

Members of the committee were not prepared to answer specific questions about funding, location, or governance, but discussed issues such as structure, academic programs, funding and budget approvals, and school life. A frequently asked-question sheet examined many scenarios, including town costs per pupil following the student, joint governance with equal representation, and special education programs working separately or together.

Newport School Committee member Sandra J. Flowers said, “The main point is to provide the best possible education to our youngsters.” With declining population, both enrollment and income from taxes are decreasing. The committee suggested unifying to create a “critical mass,” or the amount of students necessary for schools to be able to offer a wide range of classes, including more electives and advanced placement courses.

Justin S. McLaughlin, Newport City Councilor, said the optimum number of students needed to hit critical mass is around 1,300. Current school year enrollment figures from the Rhode Island Department of Education list Rogers High School with 538 students and Middletown High School with 685.

Another issue brought up was the need to structure the regional school’s governing body. Committee members said it would be important to have a combined curriculum throughout elementary and middle school so students would be equally prepared for high school.

The long process of deciding whether to move ahead with unification has just begun. Adams reminded, “Things aren’t going to happen rapidly. If people decide yes, then we will get the framework started for a unified school district.”

McLaughlin summed up the evening with a thought about what the ballot question was asking the people. “The fundamental question is a question of culture,” he said, “and we hope the answer is yes, we can work together.”

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