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Only Steps Forward: New EL could include STEM school, college education

By Jonathan P. LaBonte

Mayor of Auburn

With local schools back in full swing, the buzz about Auburn schools has been a topic of much discussion as I travel the community speaking with residents and businesses. Often I am asked by young families what is the city’s plan is for replacing Edward Little High School. The answer, of course, is not simple.

My first response has and always will be this: Auburn is fortunate to have a very strong staff at Edward Little High School, and the success of our students after high school is a testament to that. Now we have to focus on providing those first-class educators with facilities to match their skills.

The more detailed answer about when we will have those facilities is complicated, but attainable. In fact, just last week a group met to discuss more detailed next steps as projects ahead of us on the state list of approved new schools moves forward.

In addition to myself and City Manager Howard Kroll, the discussion included school elected and administrative leaders and members of our legislative delegation.

Since the state will fund the cost of new construction, ranking high on the list is important. In 2011, Auburn was number 16. Since then, 12 projects have proceeded into the planning and construction phases, leaving us at spot No. 4.

Every handful of years, the state has solicited new applications for state funding. There’s no set timeframe in which they must do this. But, should that happen, it would bring unpredictability to our situation. An immediate step is finding allies with us to freeze our spot on the state list.

Given current rules, even with the list frozen, we would have to wait before doing any planning or design. In Sanford, where they are about to begin construction on their new high school and regional technical center, nearly four years was spent on site planning and design. We need forward progress now.

Step two, as discussed last week, is to map out the state laws and rules that limit advanced planning until the official green light. Our ability, if we are fourth in line, to self-initiate planning and design work can accelerate the day when the first shovel can hit the ground and maintain our eligibility for state funding.

And while that bureaucratic, but necessary, research is lined up with other allied communities and legislators, talking more openly as a community of what a 21st century Edward Little High School would do for learning is an absolute necessity.

Could we create a charter high school for Auburn within EL, focused on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education? The state law authorizing charter schools does allow for local school districts to do this, and it might be a draw for students from the larger region.

Given the strong presence of Central Maine Community College in Auburn, as well as our existing efforts in the school department to bring courses in to EL, could this be further expanded so students remain with us through earning an associate’s degree? How would this change how physical space is laid out in a new campus?

The University of Southern Maine is further evolving into what it describes as a “metropolitan university.” Comparing the USM footprint at the Lewiston campus to Gorham and Portland, what will this mean for Auburn? In addition, the UMaine system is reviewing how it delivers education statewide from all seven of its campuses.

Could our new educational campus plan to fully accommodate more programs from the UMaine system, making it a campus for grades 9-16?

And with the adjacent property to the current high school under development by Chinese investors as a medical tourism facility, as well as the possibility of life sciences research being conducted in Auburn, how might we engage with our new investors to consider sharing space? Can you imagine if Auburn students could find themselves in world-class research and development labs in their new campus?

The time is now to accelerate not only the
development and solidifying of partnerships for our new educational campus, but also to work with the state to set the final timeline for their support of our construction. With the team assembled now, I’m confident we are moving onto that path.

As always, if you have ideas or questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out at 782-1174 or jlabonte@auburnmaine.gov.

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