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Local schools forge ahead with grants, collaboration

ST. JOHN VALLEY, Maine — Three local school superintendents traveled Friday to Augusta to hand-deliver the latest of several grant applications to the Maine Department of Education.

“To imagine what the future holds for the education of the kids in the St. John Valley is both exciting and promising,” Maine School Administrative District 33 Superintendent Lisa Bernier said Thursday. “To sit and plan what this state of the art building will look like and the programs it will offer has been a great experience.”  

Bernier, SAD 27 Superintendent Ben Sirois and Madawaska School Department Superintendent Gisele Dionne have collaborated on four grants this year, under the state’s Enabling Maine Students to Benefit from Regional and Coordinated approaches to Education (EMBRACE) program, not including the application delivered in person on Friday, Dec. 29.

“These grants have offered a mechanism to help us reach our vision: a combined central administration and a consolidated and integrated regional high school,” Dionne said Thursday. “We have worked diligently at writing these grants and are very optimistic that our efforts will reap rewards.”

“It amazes me to see how all three school districts have unified over the past year as we’ve gained traction towards our ultimate goal, which is to have the best possible educational opportunities for the students of our region,” Sirois said, Thursday.

The first EMBRACE grant the trio worked on in the spring of 2017, a Educational Efficiencies and Opportunities Grant, lead to an award of more than $630,000. This “Rightsizing Education in the Upper St. John Valley” proposal not only paved the way for increasing efficiency and expensing learning opportunities, but also set the stage for a proposed new regional high school.

In May, the three district collaborative submitted Part I of an Integrated, Consolidated, 9-16 Educational Facility grant, which ended up being one of three applicants invited to advance to Part II. That application for the second phase is what the superintendents are bringing to Augusta.

The state has set aside up to $100 million for successful Integrated, Consolidated, 9-16 Educational Facility proposal, which would fund the construction of a combined High School / Career and Technical Education Center. The superintendents have not yet estimated the actual cost of a new school in the St. John Valley.

In November, the three superintendents again joined forces to submit Part I of a Regional Service Centers grant application. This was also successful, and the trio has been invited to to proceed to Part II. That application is due April 15, next year.

Earlier in December, the collaboration submitted a grant under the DOE’s Fund for Efficient Delivery of Educational Services program. The superintendents have not yet heard back regarding this application, which was for just over $800,000 and would lead to an estimated $2.4 million savings among the three school systems over five years.

The various grants are part of an effort among local school departments and communities to addresses concerns about shrinking student populations and school budgets. Collaboration and regionalization of services has been part of those efforts.

“For years, the projected demographics have predicted the (student enrollment) decline we are experiencing, yet there was no concerted effort by the three school units to address the decreasing student enrollments, and equally as important, the economic factor–the capacity to support so many separate schools,” said Dionne. “It could not go on, for the taxpayer’s sake, but especially for the sake of our students who deserve an education that offers more than just the basics.”

“I feel like this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for our children and for the future of our region,” Sirois said. “I am pleased to have been able to work with open-minded superintendents who feel the same way.”

“The Maine Department of Education encouraged applicants to be creative and to think outside of the box, and we have,” Bernier added.

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