2018-02-01 / Front Page

Officials Consider New High School

By Brooke Constance White

The Newport public school community is abuzz with talk about the district’s facility requirements. Between the need for more classroom and office space at Pell Elementary and the need for a new facility to replace the aging Rogers High School, city and school officials say decisions are on the horizon.

A recent study commissioned by the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE), known as the State of Rhode Island Schoolhouses report, concludes that the immediate renovation need at Rogers alone is $37.9 million and its combined need over five years is $51.4 million.

With Gov. Gina Raimondo’s recent budget proposal that the state not only appropriate the annual $80 million for school construction, but also put an additional $250 million bond in front of voters next November for school facility projects, there’s consensus in Newport that the time for action is now. According to school officials, that could mean building a new high school.

Newport School Committee Chairman David Hanos said that as an elected official looking out for students’ best interests, he’s hesitant to put more money into Rogers because so much of the infrastructure is failing. The state has also indicated to Hanos and other school administrators that it does not want to invest in the existing high school property, he said.

In an effort to garner community input, school officials are leading a public tour of Rogers on Saturday Feb. 3.

“If we decide to build on that parcel, maybe we could keep the auditorium and renovate that, but the bulk of the Rogers structure is a nightmare and in really tough shape,” Hanos said. “I think people will see that for themselves during the public tour.”

In order to move ahead, the district will soon hire an education planner to help determine how Newport schools can provide a more effective education. By August, Hanos said, the district must send a letter of intent to RIDE to prepare for bonding and reimbursement. Based on his estimations, the best-case scenario would be a local bond for school construction going on the November 2019 ballot.

Many Newporters are wondering where a new high school should go. Hanos said that since the majority of the student population lives in the north end of town, it would make sense to build a new facility there, but it will depend largely on whether Newport has the available property. The bridge realignment project, which is projected to start in 2019 and should free up more than 30-acres of land for development in the north end, could offer some possibilities, but it’s hard to know when that project will be complete, he said.

“Aside from that, there’s not a whole lot of property available where we could put a campus of this size,” Hanos said. “The Rogers campus might be the only spot that we can use.”

Rogers Principal Jared Vance agreed with Hanos and said that in order to meet the needs of students, the school should be built in a location closer to where most students live.

“We’re pretty isolated at the moment,” Vance said, adding that it can be difficult for families without transportation to get their kids to the school. “I really think we should be looking to relocate somewhere close to the north end of the city, similar to where Pell or Thompson are located.”

Newport Mayor Harry Winthrop said that while it’s too early to determine whether Rogers should be renovated or replaced altogether, city-owned land that’s readily available to build on is limited.

“If something were to happen and the Newport Grand property were to come to the city, there might be a possibility of putting a school there, but I think it’s still a long ways out,” Winthrop said. “There’s no question that when we do decide to make an investment that we should work on sharing in the bonds that the governor is proposing, as the state can borrow at a better rate than we can. Something needs to be done, and soon.”

In an effort to consider multiple options, Hanos said he recently spoke with Middletown officials about reopening discussions to create a regional high school for the two towns. If the state were to offer some kind of incentive for regionalizing schools, Hanos said a merge might be a possibility. But without a guarantee of any incentive, Newport may have to move forward on its own.

“Middletown just isn’t under the same type of pressure and doesn’t seem to have the appetite for a merge right now,” he said. “Obviously, with the state that Rogers is in, we need to do something sooner than later.”

Newport schools Superintendent Colleen Jermain said she believes anything is possible, but hasn’t heard anything to indicate that a merge with Middletown is on the table. What is apparent, she said, is the need to act quickly.

“If others want to join in, there’s a possibility for that, but we need to move forward,” Jermain said. “We are in a unique position with the Career and Technical Center because we already have a working relationship with all the East Bay communities, so we’re already in a place where we educate children from throughout the region.”

Jermain said the district educational planner will be leading “visioning sessions” to help guide plans for a new high school, and that officials will consider every possibility and include constituents in the decision-making process.

“Whatever we do will have an impact for the next 50 to 100 years, so I think we need to look at everything; for example, we could look at shifting grades to help alleviate some of the pressure for more space at Pell,” she said.

Vance said that until a decision is made the district will continue to maintain the high school the best it can, but reiterated the pressing need for a safe learning environment. Stalling, he said, is no longer an option.

“Our maintenance crew does a great job but they’re really just holding Rogers together with bubble gum and duct tape,” Vance said. “I think when the community takes the tour on Feb. 3 they’ll see that.”

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