Newport This Week

Middletown School Committee Candidate Forum


Voters heard from three of the four candidates running for Middletown School Committee at a 70-minute forum held on Oct. 20 at Innovate Newport.

Incumbents Theresa Spengler and Liana Ferreira-Fenton, and challenger Gregory Huet participated. Challenger Wendy Heaney was not present, but she supplied responses following the forum. Voters will select up to three candidates to fill the five-member committee for a four-year term.

The candidates had 90 seconds each for opening and closing statements, then answered a series of questions, followed by a lightning round. The moderator was Amy Kempe, CCRI’s Newport campus leader. The forum was sponsored by Involve Newport, Newport This Week, the Greater Newport Chamber of Commerce and the League of Women Voters.

In her opening remarks, Spengler said, “If I’m elected again, I will continue to ensure the success of every student, whether it is just in the Middletown school system or in the regionalized school system.”

Saying he wanted to put children first, Huet lauded the success of his own children, who were educated locally, adding, “So, I appreciate more than most people the need to have a robust curriculum for both STEM and career tech.”

Fenton, a past president of the Rhode Island School Association, said she has worked with the Rhode Island Department of Education on the committee for the new high school “and from that we expect a career pathway for all students.”

Here are the candidates’ responses to the following questions.

Regardless of your support of regionalization, what steps should be taken to ensure an amicable and productive relationship with Newport and improve the quality of education, while balancing cost efficiencies?

Fenton: “We have always looked at what can we share with our students, both in Middletown and in Newport. So, we are looking at more advanced math and science classes again. We need to look at how much this is going to cost us. We get up to 80 percent back, and it is good for the town and good for the city as to how we spend that money and how we set it up.”

Heaney: “We need to work together to consolidate redundant programs and prioritize programs that will benefit both communities. We need to have open communication and mutual respect moving forward and take into consideration the different needs of each community.”

Huet: “We have some unresolved budget issues that are significant, and in order to get the confidence of the Newporters, we have to make sure those are taken care of first. The second is dialogue. We need to make sure we have dialogue going with all the stakeholders; the teachers union, the school committee, both towns . . . to a much greater degree than what is happening now.”

Spengler: “I think to ensure an amicable and productive relationship, the council and the administrator and the city manager need to make sure that the educators are involved. They have not been involved at this point in time. That is something that would be critical for any district, whether it is individual or regionalized. Without the educator input, it would be very difficult to plan and have a successful program. Education needs to be a priority for our citizens.”

The current School Committee and school administration was about $2 million over budget and did not inform the Town Council or the public until recently. How can there be a better accounting of the school budget?

Huet: “You have to have transparency as a public servant. You have to be honest with the people who voted you in. I don’t think that was the case with the $2 million deficit. That is a pretty significant shortfall.”

Spengler: “That is not a true statement. The Town Council knew about this years ago. We explained to the Town Council we were going to have a funding cliff and we were going to have a structural deficit, and the funding formula came to fruition and it was done.

“The accounting system had some errors this year and we take full responsibility for that,” she added.

Fenton: “Make education a right in our state constitution. Right now, the General Assembly can say, ‘I will give you x amount of dollars.’ And that’s it, and the town has to pay the rest.”

When two municipal entities don’t close the gap, she said, “there is still that structural deficit.”

The plea to make education a right failed, she said, “So, we are going to try again. That’s a problem and I want it solved.”

Heaney: “We should consider having an annual audit.”

What do you believe are the primary causes of low test scores? What should be done to address them? And how will you work to ensure academics and curriculum are the highest priority for the district?

Huet: “I think a lot of it has to do with demographics. We have a lot of English as a second language, and I think that contributes significantly to the test scores. Our curriculum is not robust.”

Fenton: “We are looking at what we can do to increase that, and we’ve tried many different things. But again, we are limited with funding. Now, our test scores are going up and we are addressing them every year. As for the curriculum, we are doing fine.”

Spengler: “One challenge with test scores is that the curriculum has changed, based on state mandates. Special needs students who require support are also required to take the tests, so that can bring scores down in any district.”

She said it’s a challenge for all districts without state funding in place to purchase the curriculum. “The dollars need to be there,” she said.

Heaney: “We should identify those students who may need targeted individual support and expand the Beyond the Bell program to include all students, as needed. We need to also focus on parental involvement.”

Do you feel that Middletown Public Schools provide an attractive, competitive employment opportunity? Why or why not?

Spengler: “I absolutely feel it is competitive. We have high quality teachers. We seek out high quality teachers.”

Fenton: “We also develop a pipeline with substitutes and who we want long term. We do attract good teachers. Teaching is hard. I’ve been there, I’ve done it, and, in the long run, our teachers are excellent.”

Heaney: “Middletown Schools are competitive and attractive employment opportunities We have above average schools with good student to teacher ratios and above average teacher salaries.”

Huet: “It’s a challenge throughout the state to keep good teachers and hire new teachers. I think Middletown is doing fine.”

Affordable housing will be a challenge in the future, he added, making it hard for teachers to live here.

Do you support the current referendum/vote for school regionalization?

Fenton and Huet said they did, while Spengler was not “100 percent sure.”

“I have concerns that academics have not been discussed,” she said.

Do you envision one high school for Middletown and Newport down the road?

Huet said the only way it will happen is with regionalization. Spengler said she is worried that the new Rogers High won’t be large enough to house students from both towns. Fenton sees potential with the middle school and “how can we share the middle school experience.”

“That would be a good place to start as a feeder,” she said.

Cite two pros and two cons, or risks, you see with regionalization of the Newport and Middletown school committees.

Spengler cited new infrastructure plus some cost savings as pros, and the unknowns of the academics and special education as cons.

Fenton mentioned the sharing of resources as a pro and cited the educational component as a con. “We don’t have a Plan B,” she said.

Huet said regionalization was a “no brainer” from a financial and educational perspective, but said there are “a lot of questions we cannot answer truthfully.”

Several audience questions were also posed, including on Middletown school district finances, the School Committee’s apparent acrimonious relationship with the Town Council, and a district advisory committee should regionalization pass. When asked, all the candidates said they would run for the new school committee if regionalization passes.

The entire forum can be viewed at newportthisweek.com.

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