Maine’s 1st regional high school faces major hurdle before it can get millions in state funding

GUILFORD — Local districts involved in Maine’s third attempt at a regional high school will need to cover the costs of an engineering study and other planning efforts before they can get millions in state funding to build the project. 

Superintendents met with the Maine Department of Education in early May to inquire about pre-construction funding and were told the state would not help pay for it, which was disappointing, SAD 4 Superintendent Kelly MacFadyen said.

“Our next step will be asking for proposals from engineering firms to find out what it would cost,” MacFadyen said during a school board meeting Wednesday. “That’s going to make a big difference as to whether we can fund it through our local budgets or go to our partners.”

The cost to local districts is an early hurdle in a complicated project that aims to consolidate neighboring schools with declining enrollment, an effort that failed twice before in the St. John Valley and Houlton in Aroostook County. The cost of the new project isn’t yet clear, but the state offered $100 million for the St. John Valley proposal and $120 million to the one in Houlton.

But it’s still years from completion, and there’s a lot of work to do. District leaders have agreed on a community school district as the governance structure that was approved by the state. An engineering study, site selection and other related work will happen in the coming months.

The timing isn’t ideal because voters just passed the districts’ 2022-23 school year budgets, but businesses such as Cianbro Corporation and Guilford-based Hardwood Products Co. were supportive of the project in the planning phase, MacFadyen said. Area businesses could offer apprenticeships, internships and other opportunities for students, and they’ll likely want to employ some of them after graduation, she said.

The modern regional facility involves School Administrative District 4 in Guilford, SAD 41 in Milo and SAD 46 in Dexter. Regional School Unit 64 in Corinth has also been involved in meetings and discussions, but the district hasn’t committed through the application process, Superintendent Rhonda Sperrey said.

The regional high school would be integrated with a career and technical school along with the University of Maine system and the Maine Community College system, according to a description on the DOE’s website. It would also support industry training programs.

It will be challenging to select a site for the school that pleases the 30 towns involved and meets the state’s requirements for construction projects, said Niki Fortier, chairperson of the school board. Districts will have to consider how long students are spending on buses to get to and from school, MacFadyen said.

If voters approve the project in a referendum — which is more likely to take place next spring — then the districts involved can access the state’s $100 million.

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