EAST MACHIAS, Maine — Representatives from Washington Academy, a private college preparatory school and the largest economic engine in East Machias, said they were blindsided Tuesday by a lack of support from the East Machias Board of Selectmen for an expansion project.
By a unanimous vote, the three selectmen refused to sign a letter of support that would help secure a $2.9 million U.S. Department of Agriculture loan guarantee to build a new fine arts and wellness center, install a new septic system and refinance two dormitories.
It wasn’t clear Tuesday what the total cost of the projects was.
Milton Ross, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development loan officer who is handling WA’s request, participated in the meeting by conference call.
“Without a letter of support from the town, the government is unlikely to make the loan,” Ross told the board before the vote.
Selectman Will Tuell said he was opposed to providing support because the school is exempt from taxation. Referring to the USDA loan that would save WA between $500,000 and $700,000 in interest costs over the life of the loan, Tuell said, “If you can save a half million dollars, you can help shoulder the tax burden in this town.”
Selectman Dale Richard never spoke on the issue. Chairman Bucket Davis acknowledged that over the past 10 years, the school has donated $35,000 to the town to offset services.
Tuell suggested the school agree to give a percentage of their savings back to the town to lower taxes. At one point, he asked if the school was willing to pay taxes on its dormitories if the board signed the letter.
“That’s extortion,” WA Head of School Judson McBrine answered.
The board’s refusal to show support for WA put the spotlight on an often tense relationship between the private school and the community.
At the start of Tuesday morning’s meeting, several residents objected to WA’s original plan to include a cross-country track in its expansion. Complaints centered on the track’s proposed location and its possible affect on local property owners, as well as the behavior of some WA students.
“We are here to try to do something good for the kids,” McBrine said, “not to upset the community.” WA officials agreed to remove the track from the financing package.
That did not pacify several in attendance, however, and they took the opportunity to speak out about problems between the “town and gown” populations. They complained about students walking in traffic, students throwing litter and cigarettes on the ground, and students entering nearby wooded areas during hunting season.
Richard Gardner, president of the WA board of trustees, suggested a series of public forums to allow these problems to be addressed. He said the trustees, the selectmen and the local school board could hold a joint meeting which could become a place to air some of the issues.
“Rather than have animosity, let’s try to work together,” Gardner said.
When WA offered to remove the cross-country track from the proposal, Tuell was supportive. “That would go a long way in my mind,” he said. But then, before the vote was taken, he reversed his stand and, calling the dormitories “hotels,” accused the school of “getting a free ride.”
“This is not personal,” Tuell insisted. “It’s an equity issue. I would be very happy to meet with Washington Academy to work on some of these issues.”
“You’ve made that very difficult now,” Gardner said. “You have put some real problems in front of us now.”