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Fallon: Antonia, hello!

Ayres-Brown: Hi Dave.

Fallon: Okay, to start, school consolidation has been floated on Aquidneck Island for many, many years. But this proposal is different.

Ayres-Brown: Yeah, this debate goes way back — but in the past, it has revolved around the idea of creating a unified high school between Newport and Middletown. In 2014, Middletown voters rejected a ballot question about exploring school regionalization, while Newport voters overwhelmingly supported the idea in the same election. More recently, over a thousand people signed a petition in 2020 asking Middletown’s Town Council to study school consolidation, but the council rejected the petition on a technicality and declined to pursue the idea further.

What’s different now is they’re just talking about consolidating the two districts’ governance and administration, without unifying the schools themselves. There’d be one superintendent, and one elected school committee with dedicated seats for Newport and Middletown representatives. But kids would still be in separate schools, sports teams, and extracurricular activities.

Fallon: If Middletown officials have been so opposed in the past, why is this happening now?

Ayres-Brown: It’s about saving money. Middletown’s schools are getting old, and they need to be renovated or replaced — but earlier this year, Middletown officials kind of had a reckoning that they can’t afford it. Creating a consolidated school district, though, could make Middletown and Newport eligible to have up to 80% percent of new school construction costs reimbursed by the state. Now Middletown wants to take advantage of that to build an entirely new elementary school, as well as a combined middle school and high school.

Meanwhile, Newport’s in the middle of building a new high school, and construction on that will keep moving forward.

Fallon: So is this a done deal?

Ayres-Brown: No, definitely not. To create a consolidated school district, a majority of voters in both Newport and Middletown will need to give their approval. And to get a question on November’s ballot, the Rhode Island General Assembly first needs to give its sign off. So there’s a bit of a time crunch, because we’re getting close to the end of the legislative session.

What happened this week is that both the Newport City Council and Middletown Town Council voted to send the ballot question about district unification to the General Assembly, to keep the process moving forward.

In the meantime, something notably absent from both meetings was much discussion about how district unification could impact the quality of students’ education. Here’s Newport City Manager Joe Nicholson:

Nicholson: As to the educational opportunity aspect of this, I can't sit here and tell you that I have an answer — any answer on that remotely.

Ayres-Brown: Officials in both Newport and Middletown agree they need more information, so they say they’re going to take the summer to work with the state Department of Education, as well as outside consultants, to decide whether district unification would actually benefit students.

Fallon: Well, you have parents, you have other community members — how do they seem to feel about this?

Ayres-Brown: I watched both council meetings and they were dramatically different. In Middletown, a handful of people praised the Town Council for finally moving forward with this unanimously and for thinking about long-term financial sustainability.

Middletown’s Council President Paul Rodrigues also said he has privately apologized to Newport’s Mayor, Jeanne-Marie Napolitano, for how he and the town handled the issue in the past.

Rodrigues: You know, we're very territorial, at that time. But like I said, the facts have changed. Basically I said to her — I said, 'Look Jeanne, you know, I apologize because we basically told you to kick rocks.'

Ayres-Brown: In Newport, though, people haven’t forgotten that. Nearly all of the members of the public who spoke expressed serious concerns about the process feeling rushed. Stephanie Winslow, a member of Newport’s School Committee, also said the new terms of the proposal reinforce school segregation.

Winslow: Should we build a set of railroad tracks on our border while we're at it, to ensure no one ever goes over to the wrong side? With separate high schools, this plan pits communities against one another to fight for resources. Middletown’s school population is more affluent than Newport's, with many more white parents who are used to being heard and are comfortable advocating for their children. We will immediately put Newport’s BIPOC families at a disadvantage in this system.

Ayres-Brown: And that dynamic is underlying a lot of this debate. Newport schools have many more low-income students and students of color than Middletown schools. And I’d point out that addressing long-standing inequities for communities of color in Newport has been a major topic of discussion recently with the planned redevelopment of the city’s North End.

Ultimately, Newport’s City Council voted to send the ballot question for the General Assembly's approval, but they were split 5-2. So we’ll have to see this summer if additional information creates more consensus. Otherwise, if district unification makes it onto November’s ballot, Newport and Middletown voters could also be divided. 

Fallon: Thanks for getting us up to speed, Antonia.

Ayres-Brown: Thanks for having me.


Antonia Ayres-Brown is the Newport Bureau Reporter for The Public’s Radio and a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at antonia@thepublicsradio.org