AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Department of Education announced Tuesday that it’ll fund a round of seven school consolidation projects estimated to save $16.2 million over the next five years at a one-time cost of $2.7 million.
The funding will take the form of grants created by Gov. Paul LePage through an executive order in January. They are intended to help public school districts find new efficiencies in their operations and pursue voluntary consolidation efforts.
A total of 21 grant applications were submitted, seven of which were funded.
LePage has requested another $5 million in his biennial budget proposal to enable more projects in the future. The governor created the grant program in an effort to increase efficiencies in public schools, consolidate administrative structures and reduce the number of superintendents in Maine.
LePage has also proposed that the state stop paying anything toward school administrators, leaving all administrative costs to local districts. All of his proposals are under consideration in the Legislature as part of the debate about a two-year state budget that must be in place on July 1.
Education Commissioner Robert Hasson said part of the idea behind the grant program is that some of the best ideas come from people working in the public education trenches.
“We have confidence in the ideas that local schools can bring to the table from collaborative efforts, both building off ones that they have tested and piloted already and also new and innovative models that are coming out through this work,” he said.
The grants awarded on Tuesday are as follows:
— The Wiscasset school district is leading a project estimated to save $8.1 million by partnering with four other districts to offer single-site special education services for student in grades 6-12. It’s expected to save $8.1 million over five years at a cost of $518,000.
— The Bangor school district is leading the creation of a regional alternative education school that will start with seventh and eighth grades in partnership with Eastern Maine Community College. It’s expected to save $3.3 million over five years at a cost of $538,000.
— The Western Maine Regional Program for Children has proposed sharing space and resources for services to students in grades 6-12 who have autism, emotional disabilities or other behavior challenges. The project cost is $314,500 and it anticipated to save more than $2 million over five years. The project will be led by School Administrative District 17 in Oxford County and involves RSU 44, RSU 72 and Maine Regional Vocational Center 11 in Oxford Hills.
— SAD 27 in the Fort Kent area will lead a $508,000 project in which three St. John Valley School districts combine grades 9-12 in a regional high school and technical education center while maintaining each community’s early childhood to eighth grade schools. Participants include SAD 33 in the St. Agatha area, the Madawaska School Department, the St. John Valley Technology Center and the University of Maine at Fort Kent. The five-year cost savings are estimated to be more than $900,000.
— The Houlton-based school district is leading the creation of a centrally located bus maintenance garage to serve districts across the region. It’s expected to save $930,000 over five years at a cost of $415,000.
— RSU 79 in the Presque Isle area will work with SAD 45 in Washburn, Perham and Wade to spend approximately $162,500 on a project to bundle special education, psychological services, transportation, technology and facilities services that are currently being operated independently. The project is anticipated to save $537,500 over five years.
— The University of Maine at Farmington is partnering with western Maine school districts to design a coaching network for math teachers. It’s expected to save $403,000 over five years at a cost of $231,000.
Some of the project cost amounts will be supplemented with local funding.
Bangor schools Superintendent Betsy Webb said her district and several surrounding ones intend to use their grant money to create an alternative education program for middle school students with the intention of preparing them for vocational training in high school and then dual enrollment in the community college system. She said preparation has already begun but a lot of work remains.
“September of 2017 is hopefully when we’ll be opening the doors,” she said. “My husband said ‘if you get this grant it means a lot more work’ but I said ‘that’s OK if it’s for the students.’”
Gisele Dionne, superintendent of the Madawaska-area school department, spoke up at Tuesday’s news conference to thank Hasson. Her region’s project involves the consolidation of administrative offices among three districts and she said this approach is better than the effort to consolidate administrations under Democratic Gov. John Baldacci.
“I just want to say thank you,” she said to Hasson. “This is the carrot as opposed to the stick model of several years ago.”