2018-04-19 / Around Town

Planner to be Hired for Schools Improvement

By James Merolla

The Newport School Committee plans to hire an educational facilities planner before its May meeting, the first step in what could be a two-year funding process that may ultimately result in the construction of a new Rogers High School.

At a Tuesday, April 17 meeting, Joseph da Silva, School Construction Coordinator for the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE), urged about 40 members of the Newport School Building Subcommittee to form a master plan in order to procure the tens of millions of dollars that RIDE will approve by 2020 to improve or rebuild their three city schools.

Da Silva said RIDE must see a master plan for Newport’s schools in place by Aug. 31, with detailed projections of school enrollment, district needs, educational vision, cost assessments, special education, career tech expansion, and much more over the next five and 10 years in order to enter the next stage of potential project funding.

The educational facilities planner will be the key advisor, guide and author of the master plan.

“I suggest you start a master plan right away. The idea behind this process is to determine the necessity of a project, in order to provide state money for that project,” said da Silva.

RIDE determines approval of school construction projects through standards applied to sites, space, materials and costs, among a dozen other criteria.

If the school plan was approved by the City Council and taxpayers in a bond referendum vote in future years, da Silva said the process would allow Newport to receive up to a 35 percent reimbursement from the state, with a possible 55 percent reimbursement, depending on what he called a “robust” proposed increase in state aid to school projects by Gov. Gina Raimondo and the legislature, which will be voted on by June 20.

Da Silva called Newport’s future proposal, “A four-legged stool. The seat is your master plan and there are four legs to support it.”

The first leg of the “stool” is the facility’s condition, he said. Based on the State of Rhode Island Schoolhouses report, completed by Jacobs Engineering in September 2017 after a yearlong assessment, the state needs $2.2 billion to bring all of its K-12 school buildings into ideal condition.

The immediate need at Rogers High, which was built in 1957, is $37.9 million, and its combined need over five years is $51.4 million.

The second leg would be a detailed demographics report. “We would expect that Newport would undertake a demographic study, or two or three or four, whatever you suspect your enrollments will be five – and then 10 years out,” said da Silva.

“We will reimburse what the district demographer says your projection will be five years from the date of current enrollment. It is important your planning department engage all of your community concerns,” he added. “Predicting the future is a very complex thing. It’s very hard to do. We will support what your demographer tells us.”

At least four demographic studies were done for the construction of the Pell School by a demographer from Connecticut.

“It’s up to your community to get the best minds in your community to present the best demographic process and get it to us,” said da Silva. “We are very restricted on what we can approve and reward.”

The third leg, da Silva added, is educational vision with critical input from students, teachers, administrators, planners, and other key caretakers as to whether to reduce class size or expand vocational technical aspects of the high school or deepen special education.

The fourth leg of the stool, he said, is cost prudence.

“You can have great vision, but purse strings come into play, budgets are very important,” he said. “Those four legs allow you to make a decision as a community.”

School Committee member Raymond Gomes said the education planner should be hired by the board’s May meeting with a preliminary letter of approval drafted before Aug. 31 in order to improve or change, not just Rogers, but possibly all three of Newport’s schools, including Thompson and Pell.

If approved, Newport would have to follow up in stage two of the protracted RIDE process by October 2019.

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