Houlton Middle High School Credit: Joseph Cyr | Houlton Pioneer Times

HOULTON, Maine — The state Department of Education has approved an altered plan for a regional high school project for three southern Aroostook County high schools and the Region Two Career and Technical Education Center.

RSU 29 Superintendent Ellen Halliday informed her board on Feb. 3 that the project was given the go-ahead by the DOE, even though SAD 14 (Danforth) has pulled out of the plan.

The three remaining school districts — RSU 29, SAD 70 and RSU 50 — as well as the Region Two Career and Technical Education Center have been working on a possible regional high school since the state awarded them up to $120 million for the project in 2019.

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 RSU 84/SAD 14 school board voted to withdraw from the project in November 2019, citing concerns of distance and the negative economic impact it would have on their community from the loss of high school teachers and other staff who live in that area.

To get the project rolling, the local school districts were asked to come up with money to cover engineering and design studies for the proposed regional high school. The RSU 29 board approved spending up to $55,000 for the startup costs with little discussion during a meeting in November.

On Dec. 9, the SAD 70 school board unanimously approved spending $20,430 from its current school year budget for its share of the startup costs to bring the project to a bond referendum vote at some point.

And at its December meeting, the Region Two board approved $6,175 as its share of the startup costs.

To date, RSU 50 (Southern Aroostook) has yet to approve any funds for the project, according to Halliday, who is the lead superintendent for the consolidation project. The topic is on the agenda for the next regular meeting of the RSU 50 board, scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Feb. 10.

“The RSU 29 and SAD 70 board, as well as the Region Two board, have all been very supportive of this concept,” Halliday said.

She added the southern Aroostook schools have been carefully monitoring the events that are transpiring in the St. John Valley, where Fort Kent, Madawaska and Wisdom high schools are looking to form one regional educational facility — Valley Unified Regional Service Center — that would replace three high schools and serve students from Grand Isle to Allagash.

“We certainly are watching the proceedings with our colleagues in Valley Unified,” Halliday said. “There may be some things that we can do differently, but the process is very prescribed through statute. If we could, we would prefer to do concept design first and then site selection, but changing the steps is not allowable.”