2017-11-09 / Around Town

Conversation: Schoolhouse Talk with Kellie DiPalma Simeone

By Christopher Allen

Kellie DiPalma Simeone long-time Middletown School Committee member, looks forward to the time when her six month old son, Peter enters school. 
(Photo courtesy of Kellie DiPalma Simeone) Kellie DiPalma Simeone long-time Middletown School Committee member, looks forward to the time when her six month old son, Peter enters school. (Photo courtesy of Kellie DiPalma Simeone) The Middletown School District is in the midst of a $10 million bond project to upgrade and renovate its facilities, a measure approved last year by more than two-thirds of Middletown voters. The approval came ahead of the Rhode Island Department of Education’s 2017 State of Rhode Island Schoolhouses Report on the poor condition of many of the state’s public-school buildings, identifying a statewide need for $627.6 million just to provide “safe, warm and dry” conditions for students and teachers.

The report recommends $15.4 million in upgrades for Middletown schools to get them to “ideal” condition. School committee chair Kellie DiPalma Simeone, in her first year as chair and ninth on the committee, is helping steer Middletown’s educational ship toward a successful future.

By day a senior software engineer at Raytheon, the new mother and Brown-educated, lifelong Aquidneck islander spoke with Newport this Week about the outlook for the school district, the influence that her father, state Sen. Louis DiPalma, has on her commitment to service and the myriad ways in which citizens can lend a hand to public schools.

What issues facing Middletown schools are you focused on for the near and long term?

In the short term we are looking at the $10 million facilities bond projects, which are going to take a few years to complete. The town council is currently looking at how the finance departments in the town and schools can work together better, whether they should be merged completely, or whether there are some alliances that can be done. We are still working on integrating technology into our curriculum at all levels.

One of my personal goals when I became chair was to improve communication throughout the district. There are a lot of good things going on, [and] we don’t do enough to make that known. The less information you share, the more opportunity there is for incorrect information to get out there.

Longer term, we need to start soon with a strategic planning process to get input from the community on what they think we need to change over the next five to 10 years.

Were you surprised by the findings in the recent RIDE schoolhouse report?

No. We did a study on our own a few years ago because we knew that we had a few systems, particularly the boiler at Forest Avenue, that were nearing end of life. It seemed like an opportune time to take a look at all of our buildings and all of our systems and do an assessment.

We chose to focus on those that had immediate health and safety impacts. Things like improving parking lots, roofing, HVAC systems, security at our buildings that are on a three- to-four-year timeline. [It] is an aggressive timeline, particularly when we are trying to minimize the impact we have on students day to day. It’s hard to learn when somebody is banging with a hammer outside your classroom.

We are already one step ahead in terms of what the state is doing. If we did the study again the number would be lower because we have already begun to address some of the needs. We can work through the capital improvement plan year to year and execute those [future] projects as the funds become available.

What projects are you referring to?

Things like science labs not being as updated as they should be, lighting that could be improved, things going beyond the “safe, warm and dry” priorities. I credit a lot of it to our facilities and maintenance team who do a lot of preventative maintenance to keep our systems running as long as possible so we really get that full life out of them.

It has been suggested by some members of Middletown council that we should look at high school consolidation. What are your thoughts on a merger between Middletown and Newport high schools?

I was one of the representatives from our school committee that was part of a group that researched this a couple of years ago. We had representatives from Newport and Middletown school committees and town and city councils. We held several meetings and did a lot of research and ended up putting out a non-binding question on the ballots in Newport and Middletown, just to gauge the public’s response and gather some hard data. The voters in Middletown did not approve it, so talks were put on hold. But, in light of this facilities report, it is possible that talks will start up again as districts look at the cost of modernizing our buildings or rebuilding completely.

Your father is a state senator and has been involved in local politics for years. Did he impart an emphasis on public service to you?

I would say service in general. He has always been involved in a variety of ways. When we were younger he was a volunteer football coach at Pop Warner [youth football program]. He didn’t have a child playing. While we were in school he was a member of the parents’ committee. He has always volunteered at church. Once my sister and I were older he started [working in] public service. I don’t want to leave my mother out. She is the same way.

Once again the debate on education is heating up nationally. Could you lay out your broader philosophy of public education?

My beliefs line up with the philosophy of Middletown overall. We always say we are “ensuring success for all students.” But it’s a challenge. There are a variety of educational abilities and backgrounds. It is sometimes overwhelming to think about the diversity of needs, but it is our job to allocate resources to where they need to go.

Raising resources privately is a priority for all schools. What can local citizens looking to get involved do to help offset costs of providing education to our children?

The parent-teacher groups at each of the schools do amazing work. I don’t know where they find the time. The boosters do a lot of work. The Middletown Education Collaborative works with all of our schools. If someone has the time, they should join one of these groups. Every dollar that these groups collect goes right back to the kids.

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