SAD 41 to join application process for regional comprehensive high school

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LAGRANGE — After several meetings learning more information about the proposed facility, the SAD 41 school board voted to join both SAD 46 of the Dexter area and the Guilford-based SAD 4 in the application process for an Integrated, Consolidated grades 9-16 Educational Facility pilot project during a Dec. 6 meeting at the Marion C. Cook School.

Earlier in the year the partnership between SAD 46 and SAD 4 was announced as one of three finalists for the pilot project, with the other two finalists based in and around Fort Kent and Madawaska as well as in Houlton and the surrounding school districts. The comprehensive high school would be funded by the state — about $200 million is set aside for the institution — to serve as a model for the rest of Maine. The institution would offer a variety of academic programs from high school to college and trainings and certifications in various industries.

Tri County Technical Center (TCTC) — where students from SAD 41, SAD 46 and SAD 4 and other districts attend — Director/SAD 46 Assistant Superintendent Dr. Patrick O’Neill said the comprehensive high school would be of great benefit to the community through a number of business partnerships. “The opportunity I am going to talk about tonight would be unique to Maine,” Dr. O’Neill said.

He explained that academic and vocational offerings would all be housed under one roof. Similar educational models are used in other states as Dr. O’Neill presented a slideshow on a visit made by SAD 46 and SAD 4 representatives to Worcester Technical High School in Massachusetts.

“This is a three-phase approach to almost getting a $200 million check from the state of Maine,” he said. “We are in phase one right now, showing what kind of partnerships we would offer.”

“This is a 9 to 16 operation,” Dr. O’Neill said, as the comprehensive high school would provide college-level classes to its students. He said the facility would also be used to offer courses and trainings for the community and by industry for its employees so they do not need to travel to out of state programs.

“The opportunities are there not only for the students but the community at large,” he said.

Dr. O’Neill said Gov. Paul LePage has worked to set aside the approximately $200 million for the comprehensive high school. Dr. O’Neill said TCTC is one of more than two dozen centers across the state, many of which have aging equipment and declining enrollment numbers. So instead of investing a great deal of funds into the existing centers, the future may be the Integrated, Consolidated 9-16 Education Facilities.

“We are looking at a school probably for 600 students,” Dr. O’Neill said, which is comparable to the combined current enrollments of the trio of high schools in the three school districts.

School board member Denise Hamlin said all those in the room likely believe the comprehensive high school is a great concept. “Can we actually sustain it is really what it is going to come down to,” she said.

Dr.O’Neill said participating districts send their students to TCTC via a cost-sharing formula and he envisions a similar arrangement at the comprehensive pilot project.

“This vote is really just to help the application, we are not approving,” Hamlin said, as SAD 41 still has time to withdraw from the project if funding is awarded.

“The governing structure of this is yet to be determined,” SAD 41 Superintendent Michael Wright said.

“Every town would be represented,” Dr. O’Neill said. “It’s not going to be a Dexter school, it’s not going to be a Guilford school, it’s not going to be a Milo school. It’s going to be a diverse school blending everybody.”

Wright said about 30 SAD 41 students travel the approximate 30 miles one way every other day to TCTC. “It’s another thing to send every kid 30 miles every day,” he said.

“This would have to centrally located so it’s not a burden for kids,” Dr. O’Neill said, as the state will work with the funding recipient to determine the school location.

He said the phase two application is due by the end of the month. “By the end of January, early February we should know,” Dr. O’Neill said.

During the public comment portion of the meeting Penquis Valley High School English/Language Arts teacher Karla DeMaris said she was speaking not just as an educator but as a member of the community. “I would say it would be very, very harmful to the students in the long-run if this goes forward,” she said.

DeMaris said the comprehensive high school plan does have great components but she said having all high-schoolers attend a school outside of the Milo area would contribute to them losing a sense of community. She added that some local businesses may also be hurt with the students less likely to stop there before and after school.

In other business Wright said, “We could not find a lending institution that would take on funding for the QZAB (quality zone academy bond) loan.”

SAD 41 has $2.1 million in QZAB funds from the U.S. Department of Education, which include a 0 percent interest rate with the principal to be paid back in 25 years.

Wright said QZAB loans typically attract a smaller pool of lenders than a traditional loan. “So right now we do not have a lending institution that will take on the QZAB and the QZAB has expired,” he said, with the $2.1 million needing to be used by the end of the year.

“So it’s a disappointment, it’s something we didn’t know about the QZAB when we did it but I think all is not lost,” Wright said.

Last month the school board approved Honeywell to carry work to make the Penquis Valley School complex energy efficient. Wright said Honeywell will draft a request for proposals for a more traditional loan for the energy-efficiency project, including converting the heating system from steam to hot water and other upgrades.

Wright said the capital improvement committee will meet with Honeywell to go over specifics. He said the work needs to be done on the building, having previously said that even if SAD 41 joins the comprehensive high school the district will still have its own middle school at Penquis Valley.

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