UMPI

Southern Aroostook school merger receives state’s endorsement

HOULTON, Maine — Could a regional high school for students in Houlton, Hodgdon, Southern Aroostook, East Grand and Region II become a reality?

The state’s Department of Education is hoping so as it recently notified superintendents from 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 that their consolidation project has been approved to receive up to $120 million in state funds.

It marks 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 that would replace three high schools and serve students from Grand Isle to Allagash.

RSU 29 Superintendent Ellen Halliday notified her board of the state’s decision during a Sept. 9 meeting. 

“There will be many next steps,” Halliday said. “We are still working to learn what they all are, but certainly sharing this news and what it will mean for our students and communities is on the forefront.”

Back 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 is to encourage neighboring school districts with declining enrollments and increasing expenses to work together to combine resources and save costs.

“The school would have the CTE (Region II) program integrated into the school, so kids would not have to go to a different place,” Halliday said. “We can build pathways of learning that go with the academics we have as well as the CTE programs. The opportunities for our students is just outstanding.”

The RSU 50 board also discussed the announcement during their meeting on Monday, Sept. 9,, according to Superintendent Jon Porter.

“The RSU 50 board has a lot of questions with the overarching question of how the regional high school may impact the education of RSU 50 students,” he said. “It is not every day the opportunity to have funding from the state to build a new regional high school happens. We need to examine this opportunity given to this region and determine if it is the right fit for our students and our school community.”

According to Halliday, no school board votes are necessary for the project to move forward. However, if one of the districts decides it wishes to pull out of the merger, they may do so with a vote by their board. 

A stipulation in the grant states that if any one of the districts withdraws from the project, the grant is nullified and would require an entirely new application.

“We will work on a committee that will make some school visits to schools that have integrated high school and career and technical education (CTE),” Halliday said. “We will be working to determine the structure of this new regional high school. There will be the formation of cross district committee to look at all aspects of what must be done.”

The project is not without hurdles. Determining where the new high school would be located will be one of the biggest sticking points, as residents in the Madawaska-Fort Kent-Wisdom consortium are finding out. That project has yet to agree on where their Valley Unified School will  be located.

The southern Aroostook project would be even larger than the Valley Unified project, with more students involved.

The group has until calendar year 2022 to get through the site selection process, vote on concept approval and conduct a final referendum for the project.

“It’s not often you have the state saying they will give you the money to build a school like this,” Halliday said. “We would never have the opportunity on our own to come up with a state of the art high school with new equipment for a CTE program without this grant.”

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