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Grant approval sets stage for possible regional high school

FORT KENT, Maine —  The idea of a new regional high school for the St. John Valley advanced one step closer to reality this week when the Upper St. John Valley collaborative of the Madawaska School Department and Maine School Administrative Districts 27 and 33 learned its Integrated, Consolidated 9-16 Educational Facility Pilot Project received initial approval from Maine’s Department of Education.

“I think this is a very encouraging and exciting time for education in the Upper St. John Valley and it validates the wonderful work that has gone into our Strategic Plan to provide more opportunities to our students and function as efficiently as possible,” SAD 27 Superintendent Ben Sirois told the St. John Valley Times in an email Thursday.

“I look forward to the months ahead to work on part two of the pilot school application,” Sirois said.

The Upper St. John Valley’s part 1 application ranked second, with a score of 38 out of 40 points. Another part of the application is due at the end of the year.

The state’s Facility Pilot Project, announced this spring, would provide financial and planning support to a collaborative that merges career or technical centers with multiple high schools, and which creates a partnership with a nearby institutions of higher education.

One focus of the pilot project initiative is to fund a collaboration that “supports industry training programs leading to recognized licensure and certification,” according to the department. The St. John Valley Technology Center, located in Frenchville, currently serves students in all three districts.

The Department of Education will select only one pilot project. The process to design, plan and construct a new school would take about three years, according to the department.

Declining student populations and rising costs have driven collaboration and consolidation discussions around the state. With a combined high school student population of fewer than 550, the three Valley districts are facing financial stress due to lack of state funding and demands from voters to keep property taxes low.

The districts were awarded another DOE grant this spring. That $600,000 grant will help fund the creation of a framework for centralized operations and exploration of options for future collaboration.

“It’s an exciting time to be an educator in the St. John Valley,” said SAD 33’s new Superintendent Lisa Bernier.  “We are making history which comes with hard work and change. Change is very difficult, but good.”  

The three districts have also been working since last fall on a strategic plan to identify effective collaboration and, if it makes sense, consolidation. Although that planning process is separate from the DOE grants, much of the networking, data gathering and groundwork for such grants was laid down as part of the planning process.

“We’ve been meeting on this for a few years,” said Gisele Dionne, Madawaska’s Superintendent of Schools, “and we were recently successful with the first grant, the efficiencies grant, so this just helps us keep the momentum going. We’ve rolled up our sleeves and will earnestly pursue this next grant.”

The Maine Department of Education is facilitating work sessions for the three Facility Pilot Project finalists, to help them develop part two of the application process. The first session is set for Aug. 24 in Augusta.

The second application deadline is Dec. 29. The DOE is not expected to make a final decision until sometime in spring 2018.

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