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Strategic regional school plan offers ‘sense of possibilities’

FORT KENT, Maine — Among the several strategic objectives listed in a nearly completed draft plan to save money for three St. John Valley school districts is the retention of an elementary school in each district while consolidating the high schools onto one campus. 

During a meeting of members of the Tri-District Strategic Planning Steering Committee on Wednesday, July 5, at the University of Maine Fort Kent, Madawaska Superintendent Gisele Dionne and others commented on similar efforts that had led nowhere in the past. The idea, to many, of previous consolidation efforts has been synonymous with loss. The atmosphere surrounding local education has changed, however, and the economic realities are readily apparent, according to committee members.

Gerald Clockedile, seen here at a July 5 meeting of the Tri-District committee was recently hired as a consultant to assist three local school departments apply for a Maine Department of Education grant. (Don Eno)

The idea of a combined high school for the St. John Valley and implementation of other shared services is much more palatable to the public these days, Dionne said.

“Conversations in the communities are different now,” said SAD 27 Director of Finance Lucie Tabor.

Dionne said many community members are asking where a new regional high school would be located. Consultant Scott Voisine told the group that any new school is still further off into the future and no final decisions have been made yet regarding its structure or location.

The group, consisting of representatives from SAD 27 in the Fort Kent area, SAD 33 in the Frenchville area, the Madawaska School Department and other stakeholders, has been meeting since September.

The final strategic plan is expected to be completed in August and seeks to bring together the strengths of each school department to best meet the educational needs of students while addressing the dwindling populations and financial situations facing local education leaders.

The plan is “bold,” and encourages communities to facilitate change, rather than “sit back and let things happen,” Voisine wrote in his introduction to the plan.

“We are not just looking to make cuts, but to make things better,” Voisine told committee members Wednesday.

Retaining local elementary schools was among the primary concerns of those working on the plan.

“That’s a big issue for our district,” SAD 33 Superintendent Lisa Bernier said of maintaining local pre-kindergarten through 8 schools.

SAD 27 Superintendent Ben Sirois said his district knows all too well the sensitivity of making changes in those lower grades, with his district recently closing elementary schools in three of its communities.

“If the public sees plans for keeping local control of Pre-K through eight, it would be a big step,” Bernier added.

Other objectives in the plan, framed around a theme of regionalization, aim to increase efficiencies at various administrative levels, enhance collaboration with higher education institutions and better integrate the shared career and technical education (CTE) program at the St. John Valley Technology Center in Frenchville.

The state is looking to better align CTE programs with workforce needs, and expects collaborations such the Tri-District group, to make that a part of their plan, Voisine said.

“This is going to be crucial and an important part of a winning grant application,”

Gerald Clockedile said.

Clockedile is a consultant who is assisting the three districts prepare an application for a Maine Department of Education grant to provide support and funding to build a proposed new high school. The three districts have recently collaborated on another successful DOE grant.

Dionne commented that feedback from community members has been “positive in all directions.” She attributes part of that to the way planners have been speaking about change, referring to opportunities rather than loss.

“The term regionalization is better because it allows for growth,” Dionne said.

“This plan gives a sense of possibilities,” rather than making cuts or reducing options, said Sirois.

Consultant Gerald Clockedile and SAD 27 Finance Director Lucie Tabor listen to discussion on the latest draft of the Tri-District Strategic Plan on July 5 at the University of Maine at Fort Kent. (Don Eno)

A driving factor behind the current collaborative efforts is economics, although those involved also realize that maintaining a quality education is essential.

“I appreciate that the process has been student-centered,” said Kathy Theriault, a math teacher at Wisdom Middle/High School in Frenchville, and a member of the Tri-District committee.

“We have been focused on making sure the kids have the resources they need,” she said. “There are a lot of things we can share.”

Collaboration among the various district adult and community education departments has been ongoing for a few years, according to Stacey Cyr, Madawaska’s adult education director. Cyr sees nothing in the draft strategic plan that would hinder that.

“Education is a continuum,” Cyr said. “Adult education is part of that. This plan will bring us all closer together.”

Clockedile said the Tri-District committee’s work has been important and will be an important part of a successful grant application.

“I think this is like building a foundation,” Clockedile said. “It’s a great way to guide the next phase.”

Additional information on the Tri-District committee’s work may be found at http://sjvstratplan.blogspot.com/.

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