BANGOR, Maine — What do you get when you combine three high schools and a vocational training facility all together?
You might have what the state is looking for as it plans to fund new high school construction.
Maine Department of Education is promoting a pilot project that would spur consolidation among neighboring high schools and is counting on struggling school districts to be among the first places to try it out.
“This is an opportunity to start with a blank sheet of paper,” Robert Hasson, Maine’s acting education commissioner, told a group of people Monday night at Eastern Maine Community College.
The department held a meeting Monday at EMCC to promote its Integrated Consolidated 9-16 Educational Facility Pilot Project. It was the third such meeting held across the state this month in advance of the first application deadline in May.
Under the program, the state would provide financial and planning support to school districts to merge multiple high schools with a career and technical, or CTE, school and build partnerships with area higher education institutions. The state would prefer a project that combines at least three regional high schools, likely requiring the collaboration of multiple school districts and the construction of a new school building, which the state likely would fund.
It could prove a tough sell in communities that have a checkered history with consolidation. Disputes over local control, funding shares, tax rates and stances on education policy have prompted many municipalities to break away from one district for another or to go it alone.
Hasson said school districts should “suspend all the assumptions and all the conversations that have gone on before” and use this as a new starting point.
“This is really an opportunity to address this freshly,” Hasson added.
As opposed to “forced marriages” of past consolidation efforts, this one relies on a “grass-roots” push by local school leaders, Hasson argued. He hopes the financial incentives and planning supports offered by the state will drive applications and result in a creative proposal.
The state would start by working with one group of towns as a pilot project, but the new model they create could be pushed out to other parts of the state in the future.
Aaron Chadbourne, the governor’s policy adviser on education, said this could be an chance to reboot in districts that have seen a continued decline in students in recent years because of demographic trends in places such as Aroostook, Washington and Piscataquis counties.
Alternatively, it could be an opportunity for more populous districts with high schools that are close together, such as Lewiston-Auburn, he suggested.
Pat O’Neill runs the Tri-County Technical Center in Dexter and serves as assistant superintendent in AOS 94, which includes the Penobscot and Somerset county towns of Dexter, Exeter, Garland, Ripley, Harmony and Athens.
O’Neill said towns across the region have struggled with tight budgets and declining student populations in recent years. AOS 94 is already in talks with the Guilford school district about the possibility of forming a plan and applying to become the state’s pilot project. That plan likely would involve other Piscataquis County districts as well.
“This could be right up our alley, but everyone’s not at the table yet,” O’Neill said after Monday’s meeting.
The application process happens in two phases. By May 1, the school boards who want to merge must submit the basics of their proposal to the state. If that part is approved, the Department of Education will offer help with the second phase, when the organizers tackle the much more difficult work of designing their new governance and education models, planning the new school, lining up financial support from the state and voting locally on the new plans.
In all, the department expects the process to take about three years to design and plan and another two years to build any new facilities, according to Scott Brown, who runs school construction programs for the state.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.