FARMINGTON — An offer to build a career and technical education center at Mt. Blue Middle School has received initial support from the Regional School Unit 9 board of directors.
Richard Bjorn and the Bjorn Foundation would donate $2.5 million to establish the Bjorn Center for Career and Technical Education to “expand hands-on learning opportunities to sixth through eighth graders,” Superintendent Chris Elkington told directors at their June 14 meeting.
The center could include programs such as information technology, architecture, construction, hospitality and tourism with skill-based learning and “hands-on project based completion with three-dimensional work,” Elkington said.
If there is room, students from other districts could also enroll in the programs, he added.
Elkington said the construction and establishment of the center would be supported by Bjorn and the Bjorn Foundation, who “see this as a critical need in the community.”
The proposal has been discussed in the past four to five years, but fell to the wayside for a year until the conversation came up again when Elkington was named superintendent in July 2021 and began community outreach.
This is in line with a previous suggestion from the Maine Department of Education at the end of Gov. Paul LePage’s tenure to offer grants to engage middle schoolers with career and technical education activities, Elkington said.
He highlighted the benefits of Foster Career and Technical Education Center at the Mt. Blue Campus, which has offered older students unique training programs, prepared them for the workforce and “supports future solutions … for our community, state and nation with the world of work.”
Middle school Principal James Black said such a program could be beneficial in the age of COVID, where students are less engaged in academics. This could draw them back in, he said.
Black also pointed out it would prepare middle school students for high school, “engage them for the long haul” and get them interested in the Foster Tech program.
The center would support data that parents and students believe in “the importance of engagement, hands-on opportunities, increasing community partnerships, internships, job shadows, being in and a part of the community.”
The logistics include an addition with three larger learning spaces and a smaller classroom at the end of the B-Wing, which offers nearby access to bathrooms. It would give the school more space for storage and teaching.
In discussions with the Maine Department of Education, the administration is anticipating a total cost of $2.5 million for 5000 square feet, which the Bjorn Foundation is offering to donate in full, Elkington said.
He added that if costs increase, they could reduce the size of the center.
Elkington said RSU 9 would have to cover costs for electricity, cooling and heating, cleaning/upkeep and an additional staff member.
He said the project needs concept approval from the board and the donor, a signed letter of intent, establishment of a planning and building committee and creation of programs and curricula, among other aspects.
Director Mark Prentiss asked if it would be locally funded or state funded.
It would be local funding, Elkington said, but equipment and construction would be covered by the Bjorn Foundation, Elkington said.
Prentiss also asked if the project would halt other needs, such as adding more space in the rest of the middle school.
Black said the project would provide three more classrooms, which would free up space in the school.
Director Debbie Smith called the project “a wonderful idea.”
“For those of you who have been around kids at that age, it’s harder and harder for them to identify with things,” Smith said. “And I think that a hands-on sort of a program for a lot of our students would be amazing. I think we would see the results all the way through high school.”
Smith made a motion, seconded by Director Gwen Doak, to approve the concept as presented.
Director Dee Robinson said the concept should be approved sooner rather than later; that “if we wait too long, it might not be available to us.”
However, Elkington said the board should give the concept more thought and wait until board members who were absent could vote. At the next meeting, there also might be a clearer picture of finances, he added.
Director Kirk Doyle agreed, explaining that though he is excited about the concept and how it “fits in with the strategic plan,” the board should “pump the brakes” to make sure there is a “really good understanding of the costs” and long-term impact of local funding.
Prentiss agreed, especially since six members were absent.
Alongside Doak, Smith “reluctantly” withdrew her motion so the project can be further reviewed, then discussed and voted on at the next meeting.