Maine sees regional high school as model despite failed attempts

Maine’s education commissioner sees a proposed regional high school serving districts in Piscataquis and Penobscot counties as a model for future education.

Even though the project is stalled by a lack of funding for the engineering phase, Commissioner Pender Makin said Thursday it remains viable.

The state-initiated pilot is designed to consolidate and pool resources of school districts that have declining enrollments. Students would have access to more opportunities by including career and technical education and higher education elements at the facility serving grades nine through 16, according to the pilot plan.

The project has drawn statewide attention as districts in Dexter, Guilford, Milo and Corinth attempt a regional high school. It’s the third time school districts have tried to bring the state’s vision to fruition. Two previous attempts in Houlton and St. John Valley in Aroostook County ultimately crumbled. If the project flourishes, it would serve as a model for future high school education in Maine.

“We’re absolutely eager to support this project,” Makin said. “We do understand how challenging it would be for multiple communities to have successful referendums and take on these additional expenditures before there’s even an established construction project.”

Superintendents from the four districts were surprised to learn from the Department of Education about a year ago they would have to fund preconstruction costs alone. State funding for the project, the exact cost of which isn’t yet clear, is available, but it’s reserved for building the school.

Districts involved in the St. John Valley project won a $1.2 million grant through the Department of Education’s Fund for Efficient Delivery of Educational Services and didn’t have to use local funds to cover engineering expenses. Money in that program was expended and nothing remains, Makin said. That leaves the Piscataquis and Penobscot districts stuck.

Makin said the department has submitted language in its budget proposal to make funding available for startup costs. The budget likely won’t pass until June, and more work would be needed to develop parameters for how the funds can be used.

The department said earlier this month that it supports LD 1415, which proposed amended rules for major capital school construction projects and is under consideration in the Legislature.

The two efforts could act in tandem, and the budget alteration should suffice in aiding districts with startup costs even if the legislation does not pass, Makin said.

With any school construction project, there are challenges and gains, the commissioner said. Makin pointed out there is a lot to be said about a small district where its high school is the beating heart of the community. There’s also a lot to be said about a district that offers students welding and engineering courses alongside English literature, she said.

“This is a model that we would love to see happen,” she said. “It is not the only model. This is one potential, wonderful model for creating efficiency in terms of costs and opportunities for students.”

Although Makin considers the project viable in rural Maine, it would not be a one-size-fits-all model, she said, noting Maine’s diverse geography and other factors.

Fern Desjardins, chair of the Maine State Board of Education and School Construction Committee, also believes in the project, though she acknowledged difficulties such as the lack of funding for startup costs and the site selection process on which districts must agree.

The construction committee strongly supported consolidation in the last few cycles that rated major capital school construction projects, she said. It’s just that those projects involved consolidation in one district, rather than a few districts like the regional high school would require.

Desjardins thinks the districts involved should make financial commitment, but the state should carry the bulk of the costs to do the engineering study.

Beyond hands-on learning and other opportunities for students, superintendents from the four districts see the school as a way to keep young people living and working in the region, or it may encourage them to return home to raise their families. It would improve infrastructure and bring an economic boost to one of Maine’s poorest areas, they said.

It’s also a creative solution to aging facilities. High schools might be in good shape now, but it’s a problem that will need to come before taxpayers in the next 10 years or so, said Rhonda Sperrey, superintendent of Regional School Unit 64 in Corinth.

“Our regional technical center in Dexter has 275 students, and we’re maxed out with space,” Kevin Jordan, School Administrative Unit 46 superintendent, said earlier this month. “I have three more programs that we want to start, but we don’t have space. We know that’s coming to a head.”

The state has sent mixed messages about its vision for consolidating and regionalizing schools as well as providing high-quality, innovative career and technical education, Sperrey said Friday. 

She can understand why the Department of Education wouldn’t want to invest in a project that might fall apart. It’s the same position that the four communities find themselves in. 

Visions require investment in time and money, as well as personal commitment, to move forward, and it isn’t clear to Sperrey that the Department of Education is willing to invest in this particular vision, she said.

A project like this requires the roles of the state and the participating districts to be more clearly defined as far as who is responsible for what, she said.

The Corinth district is named in legislation that approved a community school district as the school’s governance structure, but separate from the other districts. It has been involved in discussions and meetings and could choose to be included in the project.

Makin’s advice to the districts’ leaders is to communicate with families, staff and businesses to be sure that their communities are solid in their support of the regional high school. The project’s success hinges on the collective will of the communities, and funding for startup costs doesn’t guarantee success, she said.

Sperrey was not aware that the Department of Education is working to free up funds for preconstruction costs in its budget proposal. It’s hopeful to hear there is potential waiting in the wings, she said in learning about the development Friday.

“We’re going to continue to develop Maine’s next workforce, whether or not this project goes forward,” she said. “That’s what we do. But we recognize that we need to make some changes, and there is a better and more effective way to do this by integrating a high school.”

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