The Houlton Middle-High School is seen in August 2020. Credit: Joseph Cyr / Houlton Pioneer Times

HOULTON, Maine — The Maine Department of Education has scrapped plans to build a $120 million regional high school in southern Aroostook County.

The proposal would have been part of the DOE’s pilot project to help neighboring smaller school districts with declining enrollments and increasing expenses to work together by combining resources and saving on costs.

Although an official letter has not come yet from the state Board of Education, the district has verbal confirmation that a proposed consolidated high school for RSU 29, SAD 70 and Region Two is off the table, RSU 29 Superintendent Ellen Halliday said.

“The state Board of Education was not interested in approving the project with only two high schools and a [career and technical school],” Halliday said.

In 2017, five school districts — RSU 29 (Houlton), SAD 70 (Hodgdon), RSU 50 (Southern Aroostook), SAD 14 (East Grand) and Region Two — submitted a proposal for a regional high school system. The southern Aroostook conglomerate also featured pieces with the University of Maine at Presque Isle and Northern Maine Community College.

The project was one of two such consolidations to be awarded funding and the group was funded up to $120 million toward building a new school. A similar project in the St. John Valley was also approved. That project has yet to break ground either as the schools have not agreed to terms.

The state has given the St. John consortium until Dec. 31 to form a new regional school unit, as well as agree to the potential location of that new school. That process went into mediation on Dec. 21.

SAD 14 pulled out of the southern Aroostook project in November 2019, citing concerns of negative economic impact to the Danforth area, as well as the distance students would be required to travel. That move required the remaining schools to resubmit their application.

Halliday updated her board on Feb. 3 that the state had approved an altered consolidation plan with just three high schools.

But just one week later, the RSU 50 school board also voted to pull out of the deal. That board cited concerns with being asked to approve funding for startup costs to include engineering studies, architectural design costs and other legal expenses

With just two remaining high schools, as well as the Region Two School of Applied Technology, the state decided to shift the available funding to a regional school project in Piscataquis County. That project includes SAD 4 (Piscataquis), SAD 46 (Dexter), SAD 41 (Milo), Greenville and Jackman schools and Tri-County Technical Center.

“Of course we are very disappointed that we have lost this amazing opportunity for our students and for our communities,” Halliday said. “It is not often that communities are given the chance to design and build a state-of-the-art school and also have the chance to design and develop curriculum and courses that truly integrate career and technical programming matched to our area and state needs.”

Halliday said it was her understanding that should Fort Kent pull out from the Valley Unified consolidation project, the remaining schools will also lose their funding.

“While we originally had four high schools, after two communities chose not to continue, we still had two high schools and a CTE region who were committed to the project,” Halliday said. “We were disappointed to hear that we would not be able to proceed with two schools, as we felt that still met the intent of the process.”