Newport said no, and now Middletown is scrambling for an alternative.
Voters in Newport shot down school regionalization on Nov. 8, while Middletown voters approved it. The merger of the two districts depended on passing three ballot questions, but Newport voters, who maintained that they would be bailing out Middletown because of recent school economic shortfalls, rejected the proposal.
The opposition was best expressed by former Newport School Committee member Aida Neary, the leader of the grassroots group, Building Newport’s Future.
“Very excited that the reject vote won the day,” she said. “As we’ve always said, we’re not against regionalization, we’re against this regionalization plan, which circumvented normal [Rhode Island Department of Education] rules and was going to literally cement 30 to 50 years of separate facilities. RIDE made it very clear that they will always listen to local school districts, so we look forward to new conversations with Middletown that include combining schools.”
At Big Dawgs Pub in Middletown, where local candidates gathered to celebrate what they hoped would be a school merger and a financial windfall, the mood suddenly turned grim as the results came in around 8:30 p.m.
Conversely, in Newport, many School Committee candidates and proponents of Building Newport’s Future, who gathered at the Parlor Restaurant, were jubilant, even though voters turned their back on up to 80 percent reimbursement from the state, according to officials, that would have gone toward building a new high school.
“I will have to sit with the new [Middletown] Town Council and figure out what we want to do,” said Middletown Town Council President Paul Rodrigues, who has often said there is no Plan B. “We have to do that collectively as a group. I am disappointed with the regionalization [vote]. The people spoke and we have to move on from there.”
Middletown Councilor Barbara VonVillas added, “I’m disappointed that some voters didn’t put the needs of the kids first. Hopefully, they will find a way to restore the educational opportunities that have been lost.”
Council Vice Chair Thomas Welch was more succinct, saying, “I would rather you tell me that regionalization passed and I didn’t win.”
Many cited the influence of the Teachers Union, which voted against the plan, along with the influence of teachers worried about losing their job.
Some cited the previous rancor from several years back, when Newport approached Middletown about a merger and was rejected in harsh exchanges. Others on the Newport side called the process “rushed” and “vague,” with academic details unanswered.
“People ask me, ‘What do you say to the 84-year-old who has no kids in the system, [and is] on a fixed income?’ Well, that’s my mother,” said Welch. “And she was an educator.”
Taxes will rise, he said, no matter what happens.
“We can pay $79 million or easily double that,” said Welch. “Ed Brady, on the Building Committee, always says, ‘You get $100 million and put it into the high school and the middle school, get another $100 million and put it into the elementary schools, but you still have a 1962 DeSoto. You can paint it and dress it up, but it’s still an old DeSoto.’
“What’s the alternative? We don’t have an alternative,” he said.
*At the Newport School Committee meeting on Nov. 9, the School Building Committee reported there are some new financial challenges facing the Rogers building project. “How short are we?” asked one committee member. The answer was we want to wait to discuss it at the next School Building Committee meeting. That meeting is on Monday, Nov. 14 at 5:30 p.m. at Pell School.