7/29/19 | The Future of our Newport Public Schools (update)

The Newport City Council has called for a workshop with the School Committee and School Administration to explore the issues regarding new school design, composition, construction, and location. We will alert you to time and location when officially announced.
(For more on the result of last week’s discussions, read the 7/25 article from Newport This Week – below).   

Prior to and during that workshop, the ALN Executive Committee asks that the following issues be examined and addressed before proceeding with the Stage One submission to the RI Department of Education:
1. Secure a more definitive cost for renovating Coggeshall to accommodate PreK-1st (the early learning center) and explore other north side options for a new ELC, including adjacencies to the current Pell school or CCRI. Bussing/driving PreK children, the majority who live north of Memorial, all the way south to the current Rogers site seems imprudent.
2. Determine what a minimal “band-aid solution” for current Rogers would cost, one that would take the school through the next 5-8 years until north end land is freed up. This also allows the door to possible Middletown unification be left open for the next few years.
3. Determine exactly why a new HS (or ELC) couldn’t be located on CCRI adjacent, city-owned land. What commitments does the City have that would preclude this opportunity?
4. Determine what the fall-back position is should a $100 million + bond not be approved. This would include addressing what would happen to Newport’s HS students should that be the case.
5. Explore the possibility of bonding and proceeding with construction of the ELC (site other than at Wickham Rd.) and budgeting for remedial efforts only at Thompson, Pell and Rogers.
Unlike current plans, such a bond:
– Falls within the “tolerance” level of Newport voters (est.+/- $40MM rather than $100MM plus)
– Postpones the building of a costly all-new Newport only H.S. until absolutely necessary
– Leaves open the possibility of future HS unification with Middletown
– Allows the City to consider the use of available land, freed-up by RIDOT’s bridge realignment project.
– Locates future school construction projects where the majority of students live.

Respectfully, ALN

7/25/19  Newport This Week
Decision Time for Newport Schools | By Andy Long

While public attention has been focused on Newport’s efforts to build a regional high school, the process of planning and designing a new Rogers High School, along with space for pre-k and kindergarten classes, continues.
The School Building Committee met on July 16 to discuss two significant decisions that were ultimately made at the July 23 meeting.

First, the committee needed to recommend which grades will be at which schools. Secondly, it had to settle upon a construction format for a new high school, whether to build an entirely new high school or blend existing elements with new construction.

The School Building Committee should not be confused with the School Committee’s Ad Hoc Facilities Subcommittee, which has been discussing issues beyond building new facilities for over a year.

The creation of this new committee was mandated by the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) and is part of the process when any community applies to the state for financial assistance in the building of new schools. It is composed of city officials, school administrators and members of the community.

The School Building Committee only recommends to the School Committee and the City Council possible solutions to Newport’s need for a new high school, as well as an answer to the problem of finding places for pre-k and kindergarten classes.

“We need to know what we’re building. It’s a very difficult decision, but it’s one you need to make [soon],” said Kate Jessup, a consultant with StudioJAED, which is assisting Newport in its efforts to create new educational facilities.

The members met for the first time on July 16 and afterward elected School Committee members Louisa Boatwright and Rebecca Bolan co-chairs. At that meeting, the committee first discussed grade configuration, the term for which classes should be placed where. Currently, Newport has pre-k classes in leased space in Middletown; Pell Elementary School has kindergarten through fourth grade; Thompson Middle School houses grades five through eight; and Rogers has nine to 12.

Jessup presented three options, all constrained by the fact that Thompson will have space for only three grades by the mid-2020s, according to a demographer hired by the district.

Two plans had pre-k and kindergarten together, with one in a separate facility and the other housing both on a new Rogers campus.

One proposal for a new Early Learning Center (ELC), heard publicly for the first time at the July 16 meeting, is to build a facility at the site of the vacant Coggeshall School at an estimated cost of $20 million, with the attraction of it being close to the North End, where many students live.

“Some educators love the idea of the pre-k [at the new high school] so you could facilitate Early Childhood Education, which is an always growing field,” Jessup said.

School Committee members proposed another configuration, which would house first grade in the same building as pre-k and kindergarten, allowing Pell to hold grades two through five only, freeing up space for music and art classrooms. Also, Thompson would have to house only grades six through eight. Adding first grade to an ELC will add $10 million to $20 million to the cost of construction.

It was this option that the building committee voted to recommend while making no decision on where to place the ELC.

The second decision regarded the manner of building a new high school. The options discussed by the committee were building an entirely new facility on the sports fields at Rogers at a cost of $153 million. The other was to build in stages, moving classes as each part of the facility is finished. However, proceeding this way would cost $168 million, as part of this approach would include some renovation work, which is more expensive than new construction. The committee voted to recommend building a new high school, for cost reasons.

There has been pushback from City Council members and city administrators on the cost of a new high school. At the July 23 meeting, City Manager Joe Nicholson said, “Those figures [for a new high school] are not even in the ballpark.”

At a February 2019 workshop, Laura Sitrin, director of finance, pointed out that Newport can have, by state law, no more than $205 million in bonded indebtedness, with about $35 million of bonds already outstanding.

At least two council members have also expressed reservations with the $153 million figure. At a liaison meeting of the City Council and the School Committee on July 18, Councilor Justin McLaughlin cautioned, “It’s not what Newport needs or wants, it’s what Newport will tolerate.”

His colleague Kate Leonard said, at the meeting on July 24, “Everyone I’m talking to is asking me, ’Where is Plan B? What is Plan B?’ The amount requested is so huge.”

Nicholson said that with the city needing to replace its North Halsey Street facilities at a cost of at least $20 million, it will be impossible to borrow enough to build $170 million of new school facilities.

Jessup responded that the new high school costing $153 million, with 250,000 square feet of space, is only a proposal, and it includes all the educational amenities that Newport’s teachers and administrators have asked for. It wouldn’t be a final plan; it would be a starting point for discussion with the community, to decide what is necessary and what can be cut, she said.

Mayor Jamie Bova proposed, first at the July 23 School Building Committee and then at the City Council meeting on the 24th, that a joint workshop of the School Committee and the council be held to determine an upper limit on what could, realistically, be asked of the city’s taxpayers in funding a new high school. “What are the fiscal restraints on this project?” she asked.

The City Council voted unanimously to hold the workshop and City Manager Joseph J. Nicholson Jr. said it would be scheduled as soon as possible.


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