Maine’s third attempt at a rural regional high school is in jeopardy if the four districts involved cannot get state help to pay for an engineering study.
The Maine Department of Education told superintendents from districts around Dexter, Guilford, Milo and Corinth last year they would have to fund pre-construction costs on their own, which would get them through a challenging site selection process. But the superintendents said recently that the state helped school districts in northern Aroostook County with such funding for a similar attempt and should be more supportive. That project ultimately failed.
It’s an effort to pool resources as enrollments decline at most of the rural schools.
The state-initiated pilot began about six years ago, and the districts in Piscataquis and Penobscot counties moved up the priority list after previous attempts in Houlton and St. John Valley in Aroostook County fell apart. If the ambitious project succeeds, the school that would serve several established multi-town districts would be the first of its kind in Maine. But the districts are stuck, and superintendents wonder why the St. John Valley project was able to access funding early on to hire an engineering firm, while they cannot.
“We think our local citizens should be treated the same as others who have tried to do this project,” said Kevin Jordan, superintendent of School Administrative District 46 in Dexter. “To ask our citizens to put this initial cost on their backs when it didn’t happen in the St. John project — we see it as a fairness issue.”
The exact cost of the project isn’t yet clear, but the state offered $100 million for the St. John Valley proposal and $120 million for the one in Houlton. Based on these figures, the superintendents believe millions in state funding are available to them, but they haven’t been able to access it yet.
Jordan said that according to the Maine Department of Education’s construction team, districts involved in the St. John Valley project had a $351,500 contract with an engineering firm to complete the site selection process.
Benjamin Sirois, superintendent for SAD 27 in Fort Kent, which was involved with the project, confirmed the figure. Districts won a $1.2 million grant from the Department of Education’s Fund for the Efficient Delivery of Educational Services, which covered engineering fees, and no local funds were spent, he said.
The grant became available to districts in July 2018, and the department awarded four projects out of the 17 proposals it received, according to its website.
Superintendents have asked Education Commissioner Pender Makin whether they can expect any support from the state. She told them in March that her team is examining options to assist the communities, but they haven’t heard back, according to Jordan.
The districts haven’t sought an estimate with an engineering firm to know how much a study would cost. It would involve architects and engineers scoping out locations to build the new facility, traffic studies and more.
Superintendents have floated funding out to major project supporters, including Maine businesses that have said they would provide equipment, training and internships to students once the school is built, Jordan said. They haven’t pushed hard because they want the same opportunity as the St. John Valley project, he said.
“For us to convince our school boards to each raise $100,000 on this thing that might happen would be very difficult,” Jordan said, noting the project is more complicated than two neighboring districts coming together because this one involves four districts and a lot of geography.
The group has crossed several major hurdles, including agreeing to equal representation for each district on a new school board rather than basing it on population. Last year, with special legislation, the state approved a community school district as the governance structure.
To see the project come to an end because the state will not help pay for initial costs would be unfortunate, said Kelly MacFadyen, superintendent of SAD 4 in Guilford.
“This area is so needing of a project like this,” she said, pointing to tours that school officials have taken to similar schools in Massachusetts. “There are advantages in the long run to the communities, students, everybody.”
The school would serve grades nine to 16, meaning students and adults can access more opportunities, college courses and industry training programs. The University of Maine System and Eastern Maine Community College would have space in the building, Jordan said.
Regional School Unit 64 in Corinth is named in the legislation, but separate from the other districts. The Corinth district has been involved in discussions and meetings and could choose to be included in the project.
The Bangor Daily News requested an interview with Makin, but spokesperson Marcus Mrowka said she was not available last week.
The department recognizes how not having access to startup funding through the state’s school construction programs can be a barrier for communities, he said.
“We have been working to make funding available, including supporting legislation that would enable these startup costs to be funded,” he said, pointing to LD 1415, which is under consideration in the Legislature.
The bill proposes an amendment to rules for major capital school construction projects. Maine’s State Board of Education, in administering funding for consolidated grade nine to 16 educational facilities, would be required to allow the governing body of one high school or a regional high school to apply for funding.