2017-10-12 / Opinion

EDITORIAL

Is There a Better Way?

With the release of the Rhode Island Department of Education’s (RIDE’s) Report Card on the condition of public schools in the state, and the projected cost to create the perfect world of having all schools being as up to date and energy efficient as possible, it seems like a good time to renew the conversation for school consolidation.

The state-sponsored report is suggesting that Rogers High School requires improvements to the tune of $51.4 million and Middletown High School needs $18.5 million in improvements over the next five years. This gives us pause. Is there a better way to provide for our students?

On Oct. 7, Newport School District sent out an email announcing a public meeting scheduled for five days later, Oct. 12, at 6 p.m. in the Rogers High School Auditorium, to discuss the report. Gov. Gina Raimondo will be present at the meeting along with state Treasurer Seth Magaziner and the state school construction board.

“The statewide cost to bring all school buildings into ideal condition is estimated at $2.2 billion,” the email read.

One can and should be suspicious of the cost of improvements or building replacement in the state’s report. Without a detailed study available to the public, the report offers little information to back up the numbers; there is little discussion on financing the work, and virtually no discussion on incentives from outside entities like National Grid, which could bring down the costs.

“Consolidation” is a word that often scares people or closes down an open and honest dialogue, and this is unfortunate. Ultimately, you might determine that the concept does not work, but at least you had the conversation.

Beyond money, taxpayer dollars and brick and mortar, we should be thinking about the kids. If there was willingness to have a local conversation about consolidation, we could explore the possibilities. Would the consolidation of Rogers and Middletown high schools, two relatively small institutes, help provide more educational opportunity and curriculum choices? Would a larger school with more student diversity help students better prepare for the real world? Imagine if we could have the conversation about consolidation. If we could, we might even suggest adding to the mixing bowl of ideas a state-of-the-art regional high school on the Newport Grand grounds.

But let’s not forget the little ones. In a discourse that makes the interest of the kids the priority, we might agree that elementary and middle school children benefit from neighborhood schools, and look at how to best maintain that.

We are supportive of the focus on education by Gov. Raimondo, but fear the numbers and presentation might prevent people from listening to the whole story. Under any circumstance, the $2.2 billion in school deficiencies statewide is significant. If the state contributed even half that amount, that is a $1.1 billion bond question. Will those who have no children in school support such a ballot question? Will local taxpayers, regardless of whether they have children, be supportive of absorbing half of the five-year, $59.7 million estimated cost to upgrade Newport’s three schools?

Development of a virtually empty site mitigates the displacement of students during construction. Whether any of the existing building could be reused would need to be studied. The site is large enough to accommodate many of the amenities a high school requires. Proximity to transportation and the opportunity to develop relationships with businesses located in the city’s planned Innovation Hub are also possible. Like the idea or hate it, we are just suggesting that we stop avoiding the conversation.

We do not believe five days is enough lead-time for the public to plan to attend a discussion of this caliber, but we hope lots of people made it. We'll keep you posted.

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