Local school leaders discuss regionalization plans

FORT KENT, Maine —  Education leaders in three St. John Valley school districts are poised to move forward on regionalization plans, according to remarks made Friday during a panel presentation for the University of Maine at Fort Kent Board of Visitors. 

School Superintendents Lisa Bernier of SAD 33, Gisele Dionne of the Madawaska School Department and Ben Sirois of SAD 27 spoke to board members and members of the public during the business breakfast meeting, with nearly 100 people packing the Nadeau Hall Teleconference Center on campus.

“The purpose is not just to save taxpayers money,” said Scott Scott Voisine, the consultant for the Tri-District Strategic Planning process, another member of Friday’s panel.

The overall aim of the strategic planning process was to improve the educational opportunities for all learners, said Voisine.

The three school districts, along with numerous stakeholders, began meeting in the fall of 2016 to start Valley-wide planning. The Tri-District Strategic Plan was unveiled earlier this fall.

The plan looked at the demographic, fiscal and educational realities of the communities in the three areas and how those could impact education. Bernier reviewed some of these demographics at Friday’s meeting.

Twenty five years ago the pre-kindergarten through grade 12 student population for all three districts combined was nearly 2,680. By this year, the population had dropped to less than 1,400, according to Bernier.

She noted that, in that same time span, high school enrollment dropped by 51 percent.

“It was an eye-opener,” Bernier said, when these figures were presented at public meetings over the past year.

A major outcome of this strategic planning process was the proposal of a single high school in the region, to be shared by all three districts. The plan also rolls out other priorities related to shared services, educational reform and the regionalization of adult education programs.

“There was an appetite out there for a new high school,” said Voisine, who commented that this surprised him.

Vosine noted that students at all three local high schools expressed no particular concerns with losing their identities as individual high schools.

The plan also includes transitioning to a shared administrative services model, with payroll, accounting, human resources and a single superintendent under one roof. Each district, would, however, retain oversight of its own elementary school.

Any changes to the educational administrative structure would need to be approved by the state and, ultimately, by the voters in each local district.

As the planning process was moving ahead, the Maine Department of Education announced the creation of a number of grants to encourage regionalization of schools in rural Maine and to provide incentive monies to begin the work of regionalization.

In recent years, Madawaska school leaders not only dealt with declining enrollments, but also with shrinking financial resources, local budget battles and a call from taxpayers to reduce costs.

“We knew we wanted to consolidate,” Dionne said Friday. “We just didn’t have the mechanism to do it.”

The funds made available by the state in the past year could provide that mechanism for the Madawaska school system and the two other collaborating districts.

The Efficient Delivery of Educational Services Grant, for which the Tri-District is one of a group of three finalists, would fund the construction of a new high school that would focus on a grades 9-16 approach. It also would incorporate career and technical education, higher education and workforce and community partnerships.

The three superintendents will be submitting part two of that grant application later this month, Sirois said.

Siros said grant money from the state would cover the cost of the new high school project, with no local funding being needed. The state has indicated that up to $100 million is available for construction of such a pilot project school. The final cost for a new St. John Valley high school won’t be known until the school is designed and planned out.

The location of a new school has not yet been discussed. Sirois said that, if the final grant is approved, a local team would be assembled to look at possible locations, but that the ultimate decision of where to build the school would be up to the state.

The superintendents expect a final decision on the grants to come from the DOE early next spring.

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