SEARSPORT, Maine — Generations ago, Searsport was famous for its numerous ship captains and thriving boat-building industry.
Now, a group of local officials is trying to make the midcoast community once again a seafaring hub, working to develop a school for marine science, technology, transportation and engineering there. This summer, an act to develop what would be the state’s second magnet school became law as one of the group of bills that Gov. Paul LePage had intended to veto but did not do so in time.
Rep. James Gillway, who sponsored LD 1277 and is Searsport’s town manager, said last week that he and others are working on developing a plan for the magnet school. The state’s first magnet school, the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone, was created by the Maine Legislature in 1995 with startup funds of $320,000. The magnet school is found on lists of Maine’s top-ranked high schools and in 2014 was ranked 14th best in the country by U.S. News & World Report. It receives the lion’s share of its funding from the state, which is paying $3.3 million for the current school year, according to Luke Shorty, executive director of the school.
Ideally, the state also will fund the marine trades magnet school, Gillway said, although the law that passed this summer did not appropriate any money for it. He said a rough ballpark estimate of the startup cost of the new magnet school is just under $1 million.
“We hope to be able to bring tuition students from out of state and internationally, and that would reduce costs in the future,” Gillway said, adding that he thinks it’s a worthwhile expenditure for the state. “It really kind of started out as a local idea. Good for [Regional School Unit] 20. It’s really grown into this idea that’s a good thing for the state of Maine. We have such a history of sending people to sea and making good mariners. We’ve moved too far away from that.”
Gillway said a committee has been formed to develop the curriculum and start looking at logistical questions, such as whether the school would need to build a dormitory to house students from far away communities.
“There’s a lot of plans, a lot of concepts,” the Republican lawmaker said.
He said that early ideas for the magnet school include using area maritime or science resources such as Belfast’s Hutchinson Center, the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport and the Hamilton Learning Center in Searsport, where RSU 20 students can take an intensive boat-building class. Students also likely would be able to use the Port of Searsport to get real-world knowledge of the maritime trades, and they would not be far from the University of Maine, the Maine Maritime Academy and Unity College.
“And if you’re talking about oceanography and marine science, we’re just a couple blocks away from the real-life lab of Penobscot Bay,” Gillway said.
By February 2017, the committee will report back to the Maine Legislature with a solid plan. If lawmakers decide then to fund the school, Gillway said it could accept students as early as the fall of 2017.
“We’ve got deep roots in maritime history,” he said. “We’re hoping to rekindle that and produce quality candidates for the next century.”