Houlton Middle High School Credit: Joseph Cyr

HOULTON, Maine — A proposed regional high school for southern Aroostook County is heading back to the Maine Department of Education for consideration after one of the member schools pulled out of the project.

East Grand Superintendent Margaret White confirmed Monday that the RSU 84/SAD 14 school board voted to withdraw from the project, citing a number of concerns. The project must now be reapproved by the state in order to proceed.

In September, the Maine Department of Education approved a $120 million grant for the regional high school — the second such regionalization project in the state. RSU 29 Superintendent Ellen Halliday, project lead for the collaborative effort, said Friday that because of East Grand’s decision, the remaining schools will have to re-apply to the state Board of Education. The grant stipulates that if one school drops out a new application must be submitted.

Halliday said she is confident that the project can move forward and is optimistic an application featuring the four remaining groups will garner support from the state.

“We think given the fact that we still have three high schools [Houlton, Hodgdon and Southern Aroostook], plus a regional center [Region II], we are in good shape. We will continue with our planning unless we hear otherwise,”she said.

The RSU 84 board voted to pull out of the regional high school plan at its November meeting, White said. There were a number of reasons for the board’s decision.

“We are still part of the Regional Service Center, but the board felt there were issues with us continuing to be part of the high school project,” White said. “[East Grand’s] distance is a problem, especially when looking at extracurricular activities. They also thought closing the high school portion of East Grand School would have too great of an economic impact on the Danforth/Weston area.”

There are approximately 23 students in grades nine-12 from East Grand.

On Oct. 21, approximately 23 representatives from RSU 29, SAD 70, RSU 50 and the Region II School toured the Sanford School District, which includes a new, state-of-the-art high school with a Career and Technical Education center included.

“It was an opportunity for us to get an idea on what a new learning center of this scope could look like for us,” Halliday said. “We had a wonderful tour guide who showed us the learning spaces and interacted with some of the teachers there. We got some really great ideas from the visit. A new high school today does not look like a high school in the traditional sense. It looks more like a small college campus.”

In 2017, the five schools agreed to submit a proposal for a regional high school system. The southern Aroostook conglomerate also featured pieces with the University of Maine at Presque Isle and Northern Maine Community College for post-secondary education.

The intent of the state’s pilot project was to encourage neighboring school districts with declining enrollments and increasing expenses to work together to combine resources and save on costs.

The state’s Department of Education awarded funding up to $120 million for the creation of a regional high school featuring RSU 29 (Houlton), SAD 70 (Hodgdon), RSU 50 (Southern Aroostook) and SAD 14 (East Grand), as well as the Region II Career and Technical Education Center in September.

It marked the second regional high school project to receive state funding for consolidation. In 2018, the state approved a regional high school project that will merge Fort Kent Community High School, Madawaska and Wisdom High schools, setting aside up to $100 million for a new St. John Valley educational facility — Valley Unified Regional Service Center — that would replace three high schools and serve students from Grand Isle to Allagash. That project is waiting for the Valley Unified Board of Directors to ratify the choice of Frenchville as the new school’s location before it can move forward.

The southern Aroostook project has yet to reach a concept design stage and has not had any discussions on where a new regional high school would be located. Halliday said they have been closely watching the Valley Unified project and the struggles that group has endured, particularly on the subject of site selection.

Despite all the obstacles, both current and potentially down the road, the opportunity is too good for the districts to pass up on.

“This is an amazing opportunity for our districts and our students, so we have to work really hard to try and make it a success,” Halliday said. “Never again we will have a chance to come together and have an amazing, integrated high school paid for by the state. None of us are on the list for a new high school, which means it would be a good 15-20 years before any such project could happen [individually].”