PARIS — The Oxford Hills School District has been awarded a grant that is expected to save it and two other school districts more than $2 million over a five-year period.

The projected $2,050,000 savings to SAD 17 and Maine Regional Vocational Center 11 (Oxford Hills Technical School), RSU 44 (Bethel, Greenwood, Newry and Woodstock), and RSU 72 (Brownfield, Denmark, Fryeburg, Lovell, Stoneham, Stow and Sweden) through a grant that was announced on Tuesday, April 4, in Augusta by Department of Education officials.

The grant amount has not be determined yet but the projected cost of the program is expected to be $314,500.

It is one of seven award grants for collaborative initiatives undertaken by schools and educational agencies as part of a statewide regional opportunity and efficiency initiative called EMBRACE, “Enabling Maine Students to Benefit From Regional And Coordinated Approaches to Education.”

SAD 17 will act as the lead school district in the regional plan.

The local program, which is known as the Western Maine Regional Program for Children with Exceptionalities, will serve students with special needs who are currently receiving educational services out of district.

The participants of the new program will share space and resources to provide services to students in grades 6-12 with autism and/or emotional disabilities and other behaviorally challenged students who would otherwise be placed in special service private schools outside the participating districts.

According to information from the DOE, the Western Maine Regional Program for Children with Exceptionalities plan will allow students to stay closer to home while also providing necessary technical and experiential learning opportunities.

Superintendent Rick Colpitts said the district is still waiting to hear exactly how much the award will be, but plans are already developed for the program setup. The final award amount for each grant is being negotiated between the grant recipient and the Department of Education, according to DOE officials.

“It is looking like the district will establish the program at the Oxford Annex [currently housing the Oxford School Age Child Care program],” said Colpitts. “The program will accommodate between 15 and 30 students from SAD 17 [including the Oxford Hills Technical School], SAD 44 and SAD 72.”

Colpitts said while costs vary by student and the placement, the average annual cost of an out of district placement for SAD 17 is currently about $48,000 per student.

The EMBRACE initiative is part of a growing focus on improving education services while saving local costs by encouraging regional partnering, said DOE officials in a statement released about the awards.

The grants were the result of an executive order issued on Jan. 2 by Gov. Paul LePage to promote regional efforts to achieve efficiencies in delivering educational services.

Maine Commissioner of Education Robert G. Hasson Jr. said of the SAD 17 initiative, “The schools involved in the Western Maine Regional Program for Children with Exceptionalities will not only better serve students with autism and emotional challenges with improved learning opportunities, but they will also be able to provide these enhanced services closer to home.”

In the governor’s Executive Order, LePage directed the DOE to identify funds that could be freed up from the General Purpose Aid for Local Schools and transfer them to regionalization, consolidation and efficiency assistance purposes.

As part of the Executive Order, LePage also mandated the DOE set up a competitive grant application and award funds to school districts to assist with the upfront costs associated with proposals that promoted economic efficiencies within and across schools and districts that enhanced the delivery of educational services for the benefit of Maine students.

Shortly after, Hasson announced that the Maine Department of Education had identified $3 million in funds that would be made available through the competitive application process for school districts pursuing regionalization and efficiency efforts.

“There is a clear appetite across Maine to discover new, efficient ways to increase educational opportunities for students in Maine,” Hasson said at that time. “The Department encourages every district considering innovative approaches to achieve efficiencies and deliver educational services in new or collaborative ways to apply for these funds. We hope to see ambitious proposals that serve Maine students and free up resources that can enhance educational opportunities.”

A total of 21 grant applications, including SAD 17’s, were received  showing a wide range of cost-saving plans to benefit Maine students. Only one-third of the applications will be funded at this time, according to DOE officials. If the Department determines additional funding is available, more awards may be granted.

Governor LePage has requested $5 million per year in the biennial budget proposal, which would enable additional rounds of applications for grants in future years.

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