A joint summit of the Middletown Town Council, School Committee, and School Building Committee on Jan. 25 to study the intimidating prospect of borrowing tens of millions to build and repair all town schools started on an even more foreboding note.
“As a town, I think we failed our kids,” said Charlie Roberts, co-chair of the School Building Committee. “We tried. We did the best we could. We failed them for many years.”
Roberts was speaking of the narrowly defeated regionalization vote in November, which Newport opposed by less than 400 votes. He said this was not the only failure.
“We are failing our taxpayers . . . if we don’t update our capital improvement projects,” he said. “It is going to cost more to do the bandaids. Senior citizens can barely pay their taxes. We need a plan and . . . it’s not going to be cheap.”
The town’s schools, built in the 1950s and ’60s, are poorly ventilated, unsound, and “are falling behind in the state, other communities, and . . . on this island,” he said.
“Let’s do something for our kids and make this right. We cannot keep kicking this down the road,” he said.
Derek Osterman, senior director at Colliers, a project management services company, led the discussion of finances and attempted to fill in for the town administrator and finance director, who were not in attendance. He called the nearly three-hour meeting, “the most critical meeting of them all.”
The town, he said, hopes new state legislation will increase housing aid up to a 60 percent state reimbursement, instead of the expected 52 percent if Middletown goes it alone. He said the state may lift caps to provide additional funding and extend bonuses to June 2024, potentially opening up a more competitive bid environment, extending the bonus aid and construction timetables for new schools.
“I understand the deadlines. I understand we need the dollars,” councilor Dennis Turano said. “We need to press back to the legislators to take advantage of state help and the governor’s incentives.”
Osterman said the Rhode Island Department of Education will not reimburse on debt services until a substantial amount of the project is completed.
As for the potential massive debt, council Chair Paul Rodrigues said that the maximum borrowing of $170 million over 30 years bothers him. “I’m personally very nervous with the amount we are asking to borrow,” he said.
A particular four-year period in the first decade of borrowing may downgrade the town’s rating from AA1 to AA2. Osterman called the downgrade “still a very strong rating” and labeled it a trade-off “for issuing a large amount of debt.”
Council Vice Chair Tom Welch said consultants were laying out the “worst-case scenario.” He called a state bump to 60 percent reimbursement “a dream.”
“There are a lot of pieces to the puzzle,” Turano said. “We are pushing the envelope. If [property values] turn downward. we would be in worse trouble.”
When asked by councilor Chris Logan how long the elementary school buildings can be used, Ed Brady, co-chair of the School Building Committee, said there was no set timeline.
Several questions arose, such as if the town has considered a high school with a career technical program attached to it. “We could be leaving 50 percent of students behind without career tech,” said Rodrigues.
Although the new high school plan does include career tech, Rodrigues said it should include not just computer and high-tech programs, but also plumbing, electrical, auto repair, carpentry and other trade programs.
Turano and Rodrigues suggested building a community center for students to use during the day and where adults could learn a trade at night.
There was the slimmest hope, based on conversations mentioned at school meetings in Newport the previous week, that regionalization may not be finished. An area in the middle of the new high school plan would allow for expansion for students from Thompson Middle School in Newport if, Welch said, regionalization “is not dead.”
“Would they support that? I’m not sure,” said Roberts. “At these meetings, we don’t generally get people who are for things; we get people who are generally against them. I’m for anything that helps our schools. These numbers scare us sometimes, too, but what scares us more is not doing anything.”
Supt. Rosemarie Kraeger said there could be different “pathways,” adding, “This model gives us the space to do that.”