NEWPORT – School lunches, budgets, the search for a new superintendent, what to do about excess elementary schools, a push for a new parking garage, the redevelopment of the North End, a proposal to require Newport residents to pay as they throw, and the seemingly ever present issue of trust between the city’s top two elected bodies.
They were all topics of conversation on Tuesday when the Alliance for a Livable Newport hosted what it called an open house to discuss citywide issues with members of the School Committee and City Council.
The roughly hour-long session, which drew about two dozen members of the public to the downstairs meeting room of the Newport Public Library, began with a series of questions related to the city’s public schools.
Taking primacy were two lines of questioning: the first seeking clarification regarding the search for a new superintendent, and a second addressing the continued struggles of Rogers High School students on the New England Common Assessment Program, or NECAP, test.
Representing the School Committee were Chairman Dr. Charles Shoemaker and Vice Chair Jo Eva Gaines.
According to Gaines, in finding the city’s next superintendent, a search committee made up of 9-11 parents, students, public officials, members of the school support staff, teachers, and administrators will soon be constituted and a total of five focus groups will be convened.
The aim, she said, is to be as inclusive as possible and reach out into the community to gauge their top priorities.
The search is set to begin in earnest next month, and those interested in participating in the process should look for further updates in the weeks to come.
As for the department’s efforts to boost the city’s flailing test scores, Shoemaker acknowledged that there is room for improvement.
Gaines agreed. Especially as it relates to the high school level where under 30 percent of students tested proficient in math skills, she said that there is room for improvement.
“Math is a problem,” Shoemaker said. “There’s no question about it. It’s not just Newport. It’s across the whole state, and it’s true in a number of other public schools across the country. Lots of people have lots of theories about why that’s occurring. Yes, we have a problem with the kids in 11th grade, as does every other school across the state,” he said. “The good news is that if you look at the 8th graders, they’ve really made some significant gains and I anticipate that those kids who are graduating from the 8th grade will have a much better head start than those kids in high school.”
Gaines agreed. “The state, the commissioner, is very much interested in growth,” Gaines said, adding that so long as those students who did not test proficient in math or reading show improvement in their senior year, they will be issued diplomas.
But, she noted, many will still not be proficient. “And that’s sad,” she said.
Also unfortunate is the persistent friction that seems to exist between the School Committee and their counterparts on the City Council.
When asked if they were open to school’s finance department being absorbed by City Hall, both Gaines and Shoemaker were wary.
“If the city can get the federal government and the state government to give figures in a way that we can’t, then I would welcome them taking it over,” said Gaines in explaining why the committee has in recent years failed to provide a concrete number prior to the city adopting its own fiscal year budget. “We don’t get the information from the federal government, therefore we can’t do anything with it.”
Shoemaker reiterated that point, noting that while two months ago, the department was anticipating running a surplus, today, he said, “We think that we’re in a slight deficit situation.”
That seemed to take Newport Mayor Henry F. Winthrop, who was representing the council along with Vice Mayor Naomi Neville, off-guard.
Saying that while he has the “utmost respect” for Gaines and Shoemaker, he added, “I don’t have that same respect for the development of the budget process through your administration.”
According to Winthrop, “Budgets are nothing but a series of forecasts about where you’re going to be either at the beginning or the end of the year. And a good accountant will know, not exactly, what it’s going to take to run that department.”
Still, relying on three sources of funding – state, federal, and local –Shoemaker said that there are simply too many unknowns for the committee to provide the city with an accurate forecast in advance of the city’s annual budget process.
Winthrop, however, persisted.
“The fact of the matter is, from an accounting standpoint, we as a council have a fiduciary responsibility to ensure to the taxpayers that we fund you adequately but that we do not over fund you. Without your budget forecast we have no idea how much to allocate.” As a result, the council has opted to simply level-fund the department – a point of contention which has drawn protest from members of the School Committee in recent years.
Adding that he currently has a proposed budget from Middletown’s School Committee on his desk at City Hall, Winthrop concluded his remarks by suggesting that the city not stop at absorbing the school department’s finance office.
“I don’t think that’s the only thing we should take over,” he said. “I also think that we should take over HR administration and we should also take over the maintenance of the buildings and grounds, and let the School Committee focus on what they were elected to do: and that’s educational excellence.”
He continued, “We have a professional staff. We do it, I think, much better than the School Department and we should be allowed to do that for the whole town. I would estimate – and this is just a Harry Winthrop number – that we could save a half a million dollars or more if we were allowed to take over those functions.”
Gaines responded with a familiar, yet broader concern.
“At the bottom of all of this is the big word of trust,” she said. “There is hardly any trust between the School Committee and the City Council. And I say that with all do respect to the council… But as a body, it’s very hard to trust that they’re going to do what’s right for the kids.”
She added, “If we are taken over by the City Council, what is the priority of education in Newport. Are we going to be…second in consideration if a street has to be paved?”
For the past couple of years, School Committee member Sandra Flowers has attended the monthly meetings of the School Committee-City Council Liaison Subcommittee.
“It seems that the agenda never has to be rewritten,” she said. From combining simple functions such as maintenance and groundskeeping operations to restructuring the finance department, the proposals haven’t changed much.
Especially as it relates to groundskeeping, she noted, “That’s been talked about for a couple of years now.” Why, she wondered, couldn’t the city just “jump in and do it.”
There were no answers readily presented during the meeting except for an acknowledgement that the relationship between the two bodies needs to be improved.
That seemed to be underscored when the topic turned toward the proposed establishment of a new charter school in town.
Winthrop, in voicing his support for the concept, noted that he would not be opposed to spending more if it meant that Newport’s school children received a better education.
Shifting to more concrete matters, both Winthrop and Neville expressed their enthusiasm for efforts underway to redevelop the city’s North End.
Long a source of public interest, improving the area north of the Pell Bridge has been a frequent topic of discussion over the years. But as Winthrop noted, there seems to be some real momentum behind recent efforts.
In the coming weeks, a new North End Redevelopment commission will begin their work to determine how best to bring about change to the area.
“There have been a lot of plans that have been developed,” over the years, Winthrop said. And over the coming months, “many of those will be pulled out, dusted off, and looked over and see if they’re still applicable today.”
Citing a number of factors including the state’s commitment to reconfigure the Pell Bridge interchange as well as the ongoing efforts led by the Aquidneck Island Planning Commission to secure the former Navy Hospital property, Winthrop said that he sees reason for optimism when it comes to the North End.
Meanwhile, Councilwoman Neville noted that movement is also being seen in the city’s efforts to redevelop the former Navy Hospital property through the Aquidneck Island Planning Commission, with a final report on its potential best uses expected back on the property within the next few months.
Also on the city side, attention was briefly paid to the prospect of the council adopting a pay as you throw trash system, which is currently being examined by city staff.
Winthrop was straightforward in his response.
“The proposal before us is really just that today, a proposal,” he said. “Until I can be convinced that it’s a good thing, I am opposed to pay-as-you-throw. I don’t think it fits in Newport, even if economically it works. It doesn’t fit in Newport because of the transient population we have – especially in the summer.”
Neville held a slightly different view.
“At this point, I’d say that I’m more neutral to the idea,” she said, noting that she’s willing to reserve her final assessment until after the various proposals are brought before the council.
Further discussion was also held related to the possibility of constructing a downtown parking garage to help ease the city’s perpetual parking pinch.
While Winthrop didn’t necessarily seem keen on looking at developing a new garage structure in town, he was eager to see plans developed that would relocate the Gateway Center out of the downtown area and in tandem develop a new multi-modal transportation center that would provide parking and public transit for visitors coming to downtown.
As for repurposing the city’s soon-to-be-vacant elementary schools, Gaines said that she’s ready willing and able to do whatever needs to be done to get those schools into the city’s hands and on the market.
But when it comes to what to do with the proceeds from the buildings, a divide was again revealed, as Shoemaker said that he believes the money should go toward maintaining existing school facilities, while Winthrop countered by saying that the funds should be directed to the city’s general fund and allocated to the school department as needed.
The meeting ended with a brief exchange with audience and School Committee member Robert Leary, who suggested that the city be proactive in bargaining with its municipal and school retirees to restructure their post employment benefit plans.
As Leary noted, in recent weeks, both Providence and Cranston have done just that, and achieved significant savings that have helped shore up their long-term finances.
Leary proposed the idea of engaging retirees on the school side last year, but was rebuffed.
Winthrop said that he thinks such a strategy could be a good idea.