A Maine State Board of Education committee has recommended that the board deny the request by Portland Public Schools to be considered for state funding to build a consolidated high school.

The unanimous decision by the board’s construction committee Friday is a setback for the district’s plan to combine Portland and Deering high schools on one campus that also would include career and technical, and adult education.

But Superintendent Xavier Botana said he is looking forward to making the district’s case before the full board next month. He pointed out that the committee based its decision largely on the fact that Portland asked to be considered for the funding after the deadline for consideration had passed.

“Our vision for bringing a state-of-the-art high school experience to our students was well received by the committee, but they were not willing to exercise the discretion that they have at this time,” Botana said in an email. “I understand that the ability to waive a rule doesn’t require you to waive it. But if the vision is compelling and the need is documented, I would argue that’s the point of being in a decision-making role.”

On Feb. 9, the full board will hear the district’s request that the project be put on the Integrated, Consolidated 9-16 Educational Facility construction priority list. The list is comprised of projects that integrate high schools in one facility with career and technical education, higher education and industry training. Applications were due May 1, 2017, but the Portland district asked for a deadline waiver.

Committee members said they were impressed with Portland’s proposal but they felt uncomfortable skirting the normal application process and wanted to be fair to other districts.

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“We’re going to deny the request keeping in mind you have tremendous needs within your district and your vision is awesome,” said School Construction Committee Chair Peter Geiger, who encouraged the district to apply to the next round of funding.

The committee’s recommendation came after Botana made his case for a “new state-of-the-art building with forward-thinking programming, a school where every student will have access to pathways that help them explore their passions and prepare them for real-life experiences after high school graduation.”

The pitch to the state was built around the fact that both Portland High School and the Portland Arts and Technology High School, the district’s career and technical school, are currently on a list of priority construction projects for individual schools around the state but neither is ranked high enough to get funding anytime soon.

That list currently has more than 70 schools on it while the list of consolidated high school projects is much shorter, with just seven priority projects and three approved projects.

Details of Portland’s proposal, such as a possible location, haven’t been thoroughly developed. But Botana told the committee that the new campus would draw on existing partnerships with area colleges, including the University of Southern Maine and Southern Maine Community College so students could leave high school with college credits.

“Granting our request provides you with the opportunity to expand opportunities for thousands of students to access high-quality education, job training and career preparation with existing resources set aside for this purpose,” Botana told the committee. “You have the ability to make a difference for nearly 2,000 students every year.”

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COUNCILOR DISAPPOINTED

City Councilor Pious Ali, who had discussed the idea with the state’s Office of Policy Innovation & the Future before it went to the committee, said he was disappointed with the recommendation and hopes the full board will reconsider the committee’s decision. Ali said he was on a Zoom call with high school and college students from around the state earlier in the week and they stressed the need for more educational opportunities in Maine.

“They said, ‘We need opportunities and not just classroom opportunities,'” Ali said. “They need apprenticeships and all the things a comprehensive building like that would offer.”

Ali said there aren’t enough people going into trades like construction, and a consolidated school like the one Portland envisions would give students an opportunity not just to go to a traditional high school but to learn and practice technical skills. He also said the project, if paid for by the state, would save Portland taxpayers money.

“We know the numbers of students now are completely different than when the schools were built and both (Portland and Deering) high schools need a tremendous amount of work,” Ali said.

The state program for consolidated school projects has traditionally drawn interest from rural districts that are trying to consolidate across regions. Because of that, committee members said they weren’t sure Portland’s proposal would be a high priority even if the waiver were granted.

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State Board of Education Chair Fern Desjardins, a member of the committee, said the top three project proposals that were originally prioritized for the funding all included at least three high schools in different districts. “My thought is if Portland Public Schools had applied without partners outside of Portland, it would be questionable that they would have made it to part two of the application,” Desjardins said.

PROGRAM HASN’T BUILT ANY SCHOOLS

While the state has approved three consolidated construction projects from the applications received in 2017, none of the projects has been built and only one is still considered active. The top-rated project, in the St. John Valley, was withdrawn and another project in the greater Houlton area no longer qualified because too many districts that were expected to participate withdrew.

Botana said he is disappointed that no projects have been built  in the program, which has been funded for a number of years.

“I hope that the Legislature looks at the failure to approve any projects under this program in all these years and gets curious about what it is going to take to get projects approved that can have the impact on communities that they envisioned when they resolved to create this program,” he said.

The state is anticipating starting a new application cycle for integrated, consolidated high schools this spring, Marcus Mrowka, a spokesperson for the Maine Department of Education, said in an email Friday. The next round of applications for state funding of general school construction projects would likely begin in 2024.

Botana said the district will explore applications for both construction lists when the new funding cycles open. “If we are unsuccessful in getting the full state board to approve our request, we will regroup and discuss our options,” he said.


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