In a stunning decision, the Portsmouth Town Council voted 7-0 on June 24 to enter into discussions with Newport for joining the two high schools into a unified system. The proposal by Newport School Superintendent Colleen Burns Jermain had been rejected by the Middletown Council.
We have been down this road before. This decision reverses a May 2011 unanimous vote by the Portsmouth School Committee to end discussions on regionalizing all three of the Island’s districts and reject any regional approach.
Dr. Jermain addressed the Portsmouth Council in an effort to obtain funds for the new Newport High School facility. The advantage to the Newport system is obvious. On the other hand, the Portsmouth Council’s decision is something of a mystery as there is no apparent advantage for our school system and taxpayers. There is, however, a lot of downside. This will cost money and could cost a lot. The estimated price, without a formal architect’s plan, is $60 million. It could go much higher.
Portsmouth would be reimbursed by the State, according to the plan for the distribution of the $250 million bond approved by the voters in 2018. But Portsmouth citizens are familiar with State promises of aid for education. They are written in disappearing ink. The people making these promises are the same ones who have reduced Portsmouth’s aid to education funding by $2.5 million over the last ten years. Those costs were shifted to Portsmouth taxpayers. The normal reimbursement by the state for school construction has also been suspended by the General Assembly in a number of recent years.
The Portsmouth High School facility is in good shape, and we have a fairly new gym. We have no need to replace it, but the whole complex would be shut down if we regionalize. It would be too expensive to maintain two high schools.
Educational quality will suffer in this deal. Portsmouth High School is ranked fifth among public high schools in SAT scores. Newport High School is ranked thirty-eighth. Does anyone believe that quality will not suffer greatly in a unified high school? Our system is also much less costly, and our system does not suffer the financial difficulties of the Newport district. If the Newport district could have managed their costs more effectively, would they not have done so by now?
The proposed new high school is undoubtedly going to be located in Newport. We will be busing all of our Portsmouth students to Newport, in a time-consuming operation. In all of this we will probably lose the Little Compton pupils, and the revenue they bring to our district. Many of our families moved to Portsmouth because of the educational system. Now the Council is considering squandering that advantage in a search for peanuts.
Larry Fitzmorris is a resident of Portsmouth and President of Portsmouth Concerned Citizens. Versions of this op-ed were published in the Portsmouth Times and Newport Daily News.