EAST MACHIAS, Maine — The East Machias selectmen on Monday morning completely reversed the stand they had taken last week against supporting a loan guarantee application for Washington Academy.
On March 29, the selectmen cited tax issues and student behavior as some of the reasons for their unanimous vote to not support the academy’s application for a U.S. Department of Agriculture $2.9 million loan guarantee.
Monday, the same three men voted unanimously to support the local, private prep school in its loan efforts. The move does not place any financial liability on the town.
Although they have not met as a board since last week, the three men had clearly made up their minds before Monday’s gathering. Before the meeting began, Chairman Kenneth “Bucket” Davis passed out a statement that read: “The Selectmen of East Machias agree to support Washington Academy’s Rural Development application.” There was a line by each selectman’s name for a signature on the statement, although the paperwork was not yet signed.
Once the board voted in favor of a letter of support, a poignant statement was read by Selectman Will Tuell, who spearheaded last week’s effort not to support the school. Last week, Tuell angrily stated that the school should pay taxes and shoulder the community’s tax burden, referring to the school’s dormitories as “hotels.”
Tuell apologized Monday for his statements during that meeting, saying that many involved are strong-minded individuals who have the town’s and school’s best interests at heart. He said he let his anger and personal feelings cloud his judgment and praised Davis and Richard Gardner, president of the Washington Academy board of trustees, for meeting a day after last week’s vote to bridge their differences.
Tuell called them “honest men of sincere character.”
At Tuell’s suggestion, the board also voted Monday to immediately create a working group to address issues between the school and the town.
“We all care about Washington Academy,” Tuell said. “It is time we mend fences in a controlled, professional manner.”
Tuell outlined the working group as consisting of one selectman and one academy board of trustees member, with those two representatives appointing two more members each.
He suggested meeting quickly and as often as necessary to outline any issues or problems between the school and the town and to bring a proposal for change back to the full board of selectmen by May 1.
The working group was approved unanimously by the selectmen.
Reacting to both the proposal and Tuell’s apology, Gardner said, “You’ve done an excellent job, young man. Things were learned by both sides here. Now we will carry forward and improve the relationships.”
Gardner said the May 1 date may not be feasible, though, since the town is preparing its annual budget and Washington Academy is approaching the end of its school year. Tuell said the date could be fluid and pushed forward if necessary.
After the meeting, Head of School Judson McBrine clarified that much of the $2.9 million loan is to be used to restructure existing debt. A $1.5 million arts and music building was completed last fall, he said, as well as four tennis courts and other athletic field improvements.
While some of the work is completed, the school is still in the midst of a major capital campaign for those projects and others. Some of the other projects include a new septic system and refinancing of a construction loan for the Cates Dormitory and a purchase loan for the Larson Dormitory.
“We also still owe on our gymnasium,” he said.
The entire plan — of both the completed and yet-to-be completed expansion — is around $5 million, McBrine said, adding that the school’s overall debt is about $8 million.