Larry Fitzmorris: Regionalization with Newport

The Portsmouth Council recently demonstrated how easy it is to get the Town involved in risky initiatives that can quickly get out of control.  They tried to finesse their response to a proposal on school unification from the City of Newport, and in the process sent the wrong message and risked the imposition of a regional planning board by the Commissioner of Education.

At a June 24, 2019 Council meeting Newport Superintendent Colleen Jermain proposed that the Portsmouth and Newport school districts be combined into a regional high school district, and potentially a fully integrated school system.  In response to the presentation, Council member Len Katzman made a motion to begin discussions.  That motion was modified to add collaboration to the discussions and then passed unanimously.  This was a stunning decision and in spite of the Council intent, the Newport Government and apparently the Rhode Island Department of Education, believed this was a declaration of interest in a regional district.  There is a complex process in Rhode Island law that governs the unification or regionalization process, and the Council appeared to those involved to take the first step down that road to a formal decision.

At a subsequent meeting of government leaders on October 3 in Newport, it was clear that the Newport representatives believed the Portsmouth Council had responded positively to their proposal.  It required detailed statements from Keith Hamilton, attending for the Portsmouth Council, and Dr. Emily Copeland, speaking for the school committee, to make clear that regionalization was not open for discussion.

The question is – why make such a move?  The Portsmouth Council risked the quality of our school system for no apparent gain.  Merging our relatively high performing school district with one with a broad spectrum of financial and quality problems is the last thing anyone would want to do.  It would certainly cause a serious decline in Portsmouth’s performance and a significant increase in cost to the Town’s taxpayers.

This decision has not yet been made.  The Council’s unanimous vote still stands and negotiations continue.  While there is no obvious advantage in this regionalization proposal, there are a large number of risks.

A loss of effective governance by the citizens of Portsmouth would inevitably result in any regionalization of our school district with one or more other systems.  Under Rhode Island law, a regionalized system is governed by a school committee representing the component municipalities.  That governing body would have bonding authority but no taxing authority.  The regional school committee would therefore issue bonds, with Assembly authorization, and deliver the bill to the respective Councils for payment.  It appears that the Councils would not have authority to reduce or reject the bond service funding.  In addition, the regional school district would have the added authority to exercise eminent domain.  Citizens of Portsmouth would have a diluted representation in a type of system often dominated by its administration and unions.

In the operation of the four regional school districts in Rhode Island, all of which are now mature systems with stable budgets, the Portsmouth district has a cost per pupil that is significantly below all regionalized districts.  The actual financial budget data provided by the Rhode Island Department of Education does not support the assumption that regionalized districts will offer cost savings to Portsmouth taxpayers.  In the differential between the Portsmouth district and the lowest cost regional district, Bristol-Warren, the per pupil expenditure is approximately $2,500 lower in Portsmouth.   The data is summarized in the table below.

District and Regional District Cost Comparison
FY 2018
Districts Average Daily
Cost Per Pupil
1 Chariho Regional 3,159 $22,453
2 Foster-Glocester Regional 1,255 $22,258
3 Newport 2,194 $20,752
4 Exeter-West Greenwich Reg. 1,634 $20,473
5 Bristol-Warren Regional 3,195 $19,186
6 Middletown 2,169 $18,973
7 Portsmouth 2,407 $16,672
Source: RIDE

The Portsmouth SAT scores, the principal measure of performance of the entire system, are superior to the Newport system.  In the 2018 SAT results Portsmouth is ranked 5th among Rhode Island Public High Schools and Newport is ranked 38th.  A unification of the two districts is likely to result in a significant decline of Portsmouth scores.

Costs per student for Portsmouth is $16,672.  For Newport it is $20,752.  The difference is $4,080 for each student.  In a unified system the inefficiencies in the Newport system would be absorbed into the new district.  Costs for Portsmouth taxpayers will rise at least by $2,000 for each student, and could rise to those of Newport.

The Newport district has an immediate need to construct a new high school.  Costs estimates vary wildly, but are currently estimated at $101 million, and that amount will be passed on to the involved municipalities with unification.  The PCC believes it is nearly impossible to separate Portsmouth taxpayers from Newport debt in a unified district budget.

Portsmouth has a stable school budget process and a $1 million reserve.  The Newport Schools have a poor budget management history with repeated deficits and have recently reached a point where they could not account for $750,000.  The current estimate for the last fiscal year is a $100,000 deficit.  In addition, the Portsmouth District reserve would be absorbed into a unified district.

Portsmouth has four school buildings, all in serviceable condition.  With the exception of the new Pell School, the Newport schools are in generally poor condition.  Future replacement and maintenance costs will be much higher in the Newport schools.

The proposed financial support by the State for construction of a regional high school is questionable when the State’s past funding promises to Portsmouth are considered.  In the proposal for construction of a regional high school, Newport may receive 80.5% reimbursement but Portsmouth will not.  These reimbursement rates are subject to the political power of the Providence, Pawtucket and Warrick legislators.  The current crises in the Providence School System will likely drain most, if not all of the 2018 School Construction Bond funds.  In addition, the Portsmouth Aid to Education has been reduced by $2.5 million with the adoption by the Assembly of a Student Aid Formula that reduces our aid by about quarter million a year over the last ten years.  That is a 38% reduction in the Town’s primary education funding line from the State.


Featured image: A student mural of Portsmouth High School from the school’s website.

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