AUGUSTA, Maine — The Good Will-Hinckley school’s quest to reinvent itself after more than two years of virtual dormancy enjoyed a friendly reception Tuesday in the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee.
Several members of the committee voiced strong support for the concept of Good Will-Hinckley creating Maine’s second magnet school, though the school’s $730,000-a-year request for state finding, which is endorsed by Gov. Paul LePage and Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen, awaits decisions by the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee and then the full Legislature.
The $730,000 would be used for the school to reopen 11 student residence cottages on its campus on U.S. Route 201 in Fairfield, which is one element of a plan to create the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences. The school, referred to by the acronym MEANS by Glenn Cummings, its executive director, is accepting its first class of day students this fall. With the funding it would be accessible to any student in Maine next year, with priority given to those who seek an alternative to a traditional high school education with a focus on agriculture, forestry and natural sciences, among other disciplines.
Good Will-Hinckley is in final negotiations with nearby Kennebec Valley Community College for the sale of 680 acres and several buildings to the community college system, which intends to create the state’s first associate degree program in agriculture, along with housing several other programs at the site. Cummings and Bowen told lawmakers Tuesday that the intent is to create a seamless transition for students going from MEANS to KVCC and then into a University of Maine bachelor’s degree program.
“You guys are facing a tough decision,” said Cummings, who is a former legislator and speaker of the Maine House of Representatives. “The demand is screaming out there.”
Cummings and Bowen said the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences is strongly supported by LePage, who wants an outlet for troubled teens and for whom making higher education more accessible was a theme during the gubernatorial campaign. Part of the curriculum at MEANS will be for every student to take at least one college course before graduating. Kennebec Valley Community College, which is working with an as-yet-unnamed philanthropist, will provide scholarship money to help make that happen.
“You couldn’t have created a more perfect system that captures the themes the governor talked about during his campaign,” said Bowen. “There’s so much upside that although it’s a new program [in the state budget], it is worth the investment.”
MEANS will welcome its first class of students beginning in September, though they all will be from the local area and won’t stay at the school overnight. The $730,000 a year proposed in LePage’s two-year budget for 2012-13 would pay the overhead for the residence cottages, which would include live-in MEANS employees. With the funding, the school would accept boarders in the fall of 2012.
The plan had no detractors Tuesday on the Education Committee, except when it came to the expense in a year when many state agencies are considering cuts.
“I think this is a really exciting proposal,” said Rep. Peter Johnson, R-Greenville. “The difficulty we have is paying for it. I truly believe that student choice is one of the ways we can make our education system better.”
The issue of student choice, or more accurately having state education dollars follow students to whatever school they choose, is bound to be a controversial one in the coming weeks. Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon, a member of the Education Committee who was not at Tuesday’s hearing, will present a bill to create charter schools in Maine in the next couple of weeks, said Bowen. Several similar attempts have failed in recent years, with Democrats generally opposing them.
If the charter school bill fails, MEANS will negotiate with superintendents from students’ sending schools for tuition dollars.
Rep. Stephen Lovejoy, D-Portland, said the state would enjoy a fantastic return for its $730,000-a-year investment, especially since the infrastructure — classrooms, boarding space, more than 2,000 acres of fields and forests — already exists.
“The investment to me seems pretty modest compared to doing this anywhere else,” he said.
The Education Committee didn’t take any official action on the proposal Tuesday and is due to present the idea to the Appropriations Committee on May 4. Education Committee Co-chairman Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, said the committee would revisit the issue later this week.