DEXTER, Maine — Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen has asked RSU 19 officials to continue regional consolidation discussions with nearby school districts in SAD 46 and SAD 4 after the Newport-based school district informed the state it was ready to begin pursuing the new Nokomis Regional High School without any additional partners.
RSU 19 wants to build its new high school on district-owned land near the campus of the current Nokomis Regional High School. RSU 19 has plenty of land available; it owns 220 acres surrounding Nokomis Regional High and Sebasticook Valley Middle schools.
Regional school consolidation discussions began earlier this year after RSU 19 had two projects — a K-grade four-school project in Newport and construction of a new high school — placed on the state’s building priority list. The discussions initially began between RSU 19 and SAD 46. RSU 19 has wanted to build a comprehensive high school, which would include academic and technical school education within the same building.
Nokomis students currently receive their technical school education at the Tri-County Technical Center in Dexter. RSU 19 would either need a change in the law — which mandates that the region’s technical center shall be in Dexter — consolidate with SAD 46 to reach its goal.
Both SAD 46 and SAD 4 officials believe it will be several decades before they qualify for a new high school. Both districts are also convinced they will need to consolidate with a regional partner to make the state’s building priority list.
The two districts see an opportunity to join what one RSU 19 board member called a “super school” and create a potential opportunity to transform the Tri-County Technical Center into a four-year program. The state Department of Education has dangled a carrot in front of RSU 19 officials by indicating that their new high school could be on par with the $49.2 million, 175,000-square-foot Hampden Academy built last year if they pursue regional consolidation.
RSU 19 and SAD 46 officials began discussing possible consolidation talks last summer. SAD 4 also joined the discussions as an interested party in a possible regional consolidation effort.
RSU 19 ended discussions with SAD 46 and SAD 4 last month because the two districts want the new Nokomis Regional High School to be built near the Corinna-Dexter border on Route 7. Bowen met with officials of the three school districts in an effort to keep the “super school” proposal from dying.
During his board’s Nov. 7 meeting, SAD 46 Superintendent Kevin Jordan described Bowen’s attempt to persuade the districts to give regionalization one more try.
“The commissioner placed his finger on a map showing the Nokomis location and placed another finger near the Corinna-Dexter border, then proceeded to ask us, ‘You mean to tell me you’d allow this proposal to die over this small a distance?’ He wasn’t directing his remarks at any one particular school district,” Jordan said. “But he was letting us know how important the state felt about the potential this project had for the region.”
Jordan expects the three districts to make another attempt at regionalization, but he doesn’t believe the state will force RSU 19 to consolidate with the other two. He believes the commissioner’s intent was to provide the parties one last chance.
“He is slowing down the process. If it doesn’t work, the commissioner indicated he wouldn’t prevent RSU 19 from proceeding with the project,” Jordan said.
In other action, the board discussed the possibility of Athens joining SAD 46 and the Harmony School Committee as an AOS 94 member. Jordan provided the board with some financial numbers, which indicated there were some potential savings with the additional member. He also cautioned that bringing Athens as a member would increase work for the superintendent’s office, which may require hiring more part-time staff.
“It would mean more meetings along with more travel for the superintendent’s office staff. We [are] already stretched out pretty thin,” Jordan said. “If we could devise a system where the AOS hired someone local to take care of additional work in Athens, it may help.”
Athens residents voted 129-12 on Oct. 26 to form an official withdrawal committee to leave SAD 59 (Madison).
The Athens Exploratory Education Committee was formed earlier in the year as a result of concerns SAD 59 would close the town’s K-grade 8 school.
Athens Education Exploratory Committee member Dan Viles told AOS 94 officials last month that the town has a clear desire to leave SAD 59. He informed them the town would operate in the same manner as the Harmony School Committee, which operates a K-grade 8 school.
Athens has 50 high school students who would select a nearby school to attend. Jordan expects most Athens students would continue their education at Madison Regional High School. However, if any choose Dexter Regional High School, he expected there would be plenty of room.
“Our program could easily absorb another 10-12 students per grade, so there wouldn’t be any disruption if the Athens students decided to come here,” Jordan said.