The Newport Schools/City Council Liaison Subcommittee convened on Tuesday, Feb. 11 with an agenda dominated by continuing discussions of sharing facilities services with the Middletown Public Schools.
Newport Schools Superintendent Colleen B. Jermain updated the subcommittee on the Triplett School, which is being considered as a possible solution to capacity problems at Pell. Over $300,000 in capital funds could be tapped to repair the building’s roof and mold issues. A proposal before the School Committee suggests that Triplett could be used for preschool students, clearing space for other grades at Pell.
School committee member Thomas Phelan emphasized that some on the committee did not necessarily support the Triplett proposal, arguing that options remain to fit more students at Pell and that capacity may be available at Rogers. Jermain said that “areas at Rogers could possibly be retrofitted for younger students, but the idea could be cost prohibitive.” Modular buildings are another possibility. She said that all ideas to rectify student population issues are being examined and that Triplett will remain on the agenda for now.
Jermain then began the discussion on sharing facilities services by explaining that she and Edward Collins, Middletown facilities director, have already identified practices that could possibly be integrated. “Such a model could be periodically revisited to see if the arrangement is working and whether it’s in the best interests of students,” she said.
Collins and Paul Fagan, the director of property services for Newport Schools, described the benefits of sharing purchasing power, work order systems, equipment, and highly-skilled workers. Collins echoed Superintendent Jermain in saying that there are opportunities for the districts to work together to save money. With the Middletown School Committee already on board, he said “the districts could look together for efficiencies in maintaining their buildings while implementing best practices across both municipalities.” Collins noted that “90 percent of Middletown’s maintenance needs are handled through in-house staff and this expertise could benefit Newport.” In turn, Newport’s strengths would ensure that the districts enjoy a mutually-beneficial relationship. But Jermain acknowledged that “the devil is in the details.”
Fagan, whose upcoming retirement could be an additional impetus to begin the effort, noted that, if necessary, union contracts could be massaged to facilitate the model. Jermain agreed, saying that “The unions have been discussing the possibilities of shared services and seem supportive of the idea.”
At this juncture, Councilor Naomi Neville reminded the subcommittee that the city had hoped to work with the schools to realize possible cost savings. She asked if this idea had been abandoned with the proposed alliance among the school districts. School Committee Vice- Chair Jo Eva Gaines commented that sharing resources with the city would continue to be an option, as any arrangement with Middletown would proceed on a trial basis.
Newport City Manager Jane Howington said that sharing services between the city and its schools was simply an idea presented to save money during budget discussions and that working with another school district is also an option. Jermain emphasized that “long-term cost savings could amount to millions of dollars and working with Middletown would be consistent with unified school discussions currently moving forward.”
Neville averred that the city had been trying to save money through a common facilities manager for three years, but that “it always comes down to the fact that the schools don’t want to share services.” Some subcommittee members disagreed with that statement, and Neville’s volley turned into a debate about the appropriations process and whether the schools were properly notified of their funding.
Councilor Justin McLaughlin noted that while the most recent appropriation process was unusual, the school budget was approved for level funding. School Committee Chair Charles Shoemaker strongly disapproved of the budget process that took place, maintaining that the City Council violated state law in not advising of school appropriations through a formal letter.
Steering the subcommittee away from budget semantics, Superintendent Jermain said that while it makes sense to find synergies among the school districts, the door should not be closed to school-city cooperation. McLaughlin agreed that if the school could save more money by working with Middletown, it should proceed. “We need to have a more nuanced budget debate,” he said. “The goal is to save money and we need to work together to meet that objective.” The subcommittee agreed to move the shared services issue to the March meetings of the School Committee and City Council.
The group’s final agenda item was an update on the Collins Report, a study being conducted by the Edward J. Collins, Jr. Center for Public Management to determine if the schools are meeting basic educational requirements. Consultants have interviewed principals and other school leaders, recorded their observations, and have suggested five ideas to help the new superintendent hit the ground running. Howington said that the study has moved from dialogue to a stage where helpful suggestions are being offered, with the next step being an audit to assist policymakers.
The subcommittee requested that Jermain specify whether a financial audit or performance audit is needed. Jermain agreed to study the question, while also saying, “I’m aware of the processes that have been used in the study. The (former) superintendent and other administrative leaders weren’t interviewed. This makes me wonder whether all aspects of running a school district were encompassed.”
Sparks flew with Howington’s statement that the Collins consultants had composed a partiallycompleted draft of their ideas. Gaines questioned why the document had not been distributed. Howington vehemently objected to any implication that she was “sitting on” the information, emphasizing the still-early stages of the report and reminding the subcommittee that it was delayed to allow for the input of the incoming superintendent. “The whole point of the report is for us to share with each other to help our processes,” she argued as she abruptly left the room.
While McLaughlin described the report as a “working paper,” Neville said that “at some point it has to move from its rough draft form and be distributed.”