Town and education officials tour each of the schools and more Saturday to get a first-hand look at where the buildings are working and where work is needed. For more information, visit https://mdl.town/PreliminarySchoolPlan online.
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SCHOOL BUILDING TOURS
TAKES IN THE GOOD & BAD OF EXISTING FACILITIES
MIDDLETOWN, R.I. (NOVEMBER 13, 2021) – The Town Council got a first-hand look at existing and off-line schools Saturday.
Throughout the tours led by the school Building Committee and DBVW Architects, council members heard that most of the structures were in good shape but needed help.
The tours started at the Oliphant administration building on Oliphant Lane before moving to the Berkeley-Peckham School on Green End Avenue, both in the running for senior affordable housing projects.
Then, the council moved to Gaudet Middle School, Aquidneck School, Middletown High and closing at Forest Avenue School, all considered for sizable upgrades as part of a November 2022 projected school improvement bond.
Over the next several months, town and educational officials will be asked to decide what to do with the all the buildings – if anything – to help shape the future of the schools and affordable housing for decades to come in Middletown. To see a copy of the preliminary proposed plan from the schools, visit https://mdl.town/PreliminarySchoolPlan online. No formal projected price tag for the project was put forward Saturday and no action was taken regarding the early concept.
“I want to say ‘Thank you’ to everyone for coming out today,” council President Paul M. Rodrigues said. “I think this was a really good exercise and I know I got a lot out of seeing everything for myself today.”
“This was definitely worthwhile, no doubt about it,” said parent Charlie Roberts, the Building Committee co-chairman. “I only wish that everyone around town could see it, something we’re working on setting up down the line.”
For a decade plus, the future of the school buildings and grounds has been an open question.
To date, the Town has used a “fix what we have” strategy, where the existing four school structures – mostly built in the 1960s -- are repaired and upgraded rather than starting new.
Voters have overwhelmingly backed this approach. In November 2016, they approved a $10 million bond for safety and update work to each of the schools among other improvements.
Last month, the schools filed a Stage 1 application with the state Department of Education. That paperwork included a facility condition assessment, demographic projections and a statement of interest from the Town Council to move forward with potential projects from the schools.
Next, the schools are expected to submit a Stage 2 application to RIDE in September 2022. That packet of information will include a detailed set of plans from the schools about specifically what was needed. From there, a bond is expected to go before voters on the November 2022 ballot to help pay for the work.
Previously, school consultants have said the school work was eligible for at least 35 percent reimbursement from the state on the final project cost. That figure could rise to a 52.5 percent reimbursement from the state if all the necessary targets were met.
To date, the schools haven’t set a bottom-line cost on what was needed or submitted a formal set of plans. Instead, they’ve talked generally about creating “Learning Centers” in each of the four schools, remodeled science labs at Middletown High and Gaudet Middle schools, overhauling the library at Middletown High as well as opening new space for additional career pathways there.
From the moment the council, Building Committee and others got together early Saturday, the event took on the tone of an upbeat adventure. As officials moved through the schools, there were many moments spent reminiscing about a teacher, time spent in a particular classroom or of friends gone by. There was also a healthy dose of ribbing between those on the tours.
At the Oliphant administration building, DBVW Senior Principal Architect Douglas Brown said the structure was in good shape and set up well for senior housing. Although a detailed analysis was not performed yet, he said it appeared like 15-17 units of affordable housing could fit there. In the back of the building, there was plenty of room for parking and potentially walking trails on the eastern side of the property at 26 Oliphant Lane.
Down the road, town affordable housing consultant Frank Spinella said unfortunately, the former Peckham School site did not lend itself nearly as well to senior affordable housing. With design, mold and layout challenges, among others, Spinella said the Town would be better off starting new on the property also home to the Middletown Senior Center at 650 Green End Ave.
“This situation does not lend itself to reuse like Oliphant does,” Spinella said. “This is an old building and every time you open things up, it will be more problems.”
The council President Rodrigues said if the Town were to continue to consider the property for senior affordable housing, it would have to be where the Peckham School currently stands.
“Whatever we do, it we don’t keep the same footprint, I don’t think it will fly,” Rodrigues said. “You heard what the neighbors said before.”
Councilman Dennis Turano reminded those on-hand that the Affordable Housing Committee was meeting Thursday, Nov. 18 at 6 p.m. from the Fire Station Community Room to discuss the possibility of having affordable housing at the Berkeley-Peckham site, Oliphant and/or Linden Park. In order to be financially feasible, Spinella has said the Town needs to have at least 50 units of affordable housing across the community to make the numbers work.
“Senior housing, work force housing and low-income housing are all things we need to find ways to grow in Middletown,” Turano said.
Moving onto Gaudet and the future of education in Middletown, DBVW Associate Principal Architect Edward Cifune said there was much to like about the building and the work to keep it current.
However, there were also long-standing issues with flooring, code, door, sprinkler and other issues that needed addressing. Some were relatively simple, while others required more work, Cifune said.
In terms of additions, a new space for administration would be added to the southeast corner of Gaudet, off what’s currently being used for a music room. That space would be renovated as well for a lecture hall and community space, something the district lacks across all its structures.
Space for the Newport County Regional Special Education program, a media center in the main level courtyard, dedicated music and chorus rooms and other art and hands on spaces were also included.
“I think a big part of what we’re looking to do here is more the delivery of education in buildings that are in the 21stcentury,” Cifune said. “Education has changed a lot and we don’t have set classrooms like we used to. A big part of education today is flexibility.”
Throughout, Rodrigues emphasized a need to make sure the infrastructure needs of the schools were met first before other items were addressed.
“People who know me have heard this before, but it all comes down to dollars and cents,” Rodrigues said. “We have to do infrastructure improvements. I get that. No one is arguing that. It’s a question of what’s nice to have versus what’s necessary.”
At Aquidneck, there was discussion of a handful of modest additions as well as relocating the library media center into the space currently used for the gymnasium. If approved, a new 5,800-square-foot gymnasium would be added to the southwestern wing of the building.
“What’s happened here isn’t a situation where Middletown has faltered,” Cifune said. “It’s what was okay in the 1960s has evolved quite a bit to today’s standards.”
Down the road at Middletown High, Principal Jeff Heath agreed that the building was in good shape, but mostly minor improvements would solve that. The big-ticket items were in the guts of the building, including piping and furnaces.
“There has to be impromptu spaces to allow our teachers to teach,” Cifune said. “Flexible spaces are the key to everything.”
Much of the time at Forest Avenue School focused on the award-winning “Learning Academy” space, which drew rave reviews from town officials and educators alike. Much of that work was done in house, something Town leaders said they’d like to see more of moving forward.
A new 5,600-square-foot gymnasium, media center and classroom additions to the western side of the building were discussed, among other proposals. The outdated elevator at Forest Avenue School would need to be replaced, the same as Aquidneck School, issues made difficult due to space constraints in the existing buildings.
“Personally, I think it needs to be infrastructure first, what keeps the kids warm, safe and dry,” Rodrigues said. “After that, we’ll have to look at everything else and figure out where our priorities might be.”