FORT KENT, Maine — One of the sites eyed for a new high school serving several Aroostook County communities might not be big enough for the project, and could affect two prominent community organizations.
The proposed St. John Valley educational facility in Fort Kent would replace three high schools and serve students from Grand Isle to Allagash. But the developable acres on that parcel are not even connected, leaving splotches of land scattered throughout the area that Valley Unified would not be able to use — and the lots in one section already house buildings and businesses.
The Fort Kent site is one of the two remaining from the original 46 considered in the region to house the Valley Unified Regional Service Center. The state last year authorized funding up to $100 million for a new facility that would replace three high schools and serve students from Grand Isle to Allagash. Residents of the member communities and Maine Department of Education will need to approve the final project.
Joined under the umbrella of the Valley Unified Regional Service Center, Madawaska School Department, and school administrative units 27 (Fort Kent) and 33 (Frenchville) have worked together to address the declining enrollment and rising costs in education.
It is unclear what the configuration of the Fort Kent site means for its viability as a potential school site going forward, or what it might mean for the remaining site in Frenchville. Those involved say they are just following the selection process as it’s laid out currently to see where it leads.
Site Selection Committee members were invited to visit the two final sites in early August. WBRC Engineering said that seven of the 17 committee members visited the sites, which are in Frenchville near the Tech Center and in Fort Kent where the PAWS animal shelter and the Aroostook County Action Program are located.
According to the process established by the state and Valley Unified Education Service Center, the school building sites must have “sufficient useable land.” Specifically there would be a maximum state subsidy to cover the cost to build on 30 usable acres plus 1 acre per 100 students.
The Fort Kent site met that qualification given the current and projected 9-12 student population. But in early August when Valley Unified Board voted to integrate seventh- and eighth-graders into the project, the average number of students per year increased by 207, according to the projected student enrollment provided last November at a Madawaska School Committee meeting.
With the addition of two more grades, the maximum acreage for funding is 37 “sufficient useable” acres with room for growth. The Department of Education said that it would make sense to round up instead of down in the event that student enrollment is not an exact number.
There are 36 developable acres at the Fort Kent site, which doesn’t leave room for growth if the proposed school attracts families to the Valley, according to the site selection criteria that the WBRC Engineering firm used.
The lots in one section house buildings and businesses including PAWs Animal Welfare Society and the Aroostook County Action Program, a head start program designed to help children growing up in poverty.
Chairman of the Board of Directors for Valley Unified Toby Jandreau said the board was not worried about those two organizations yet, but the question should be saved for another day because he doesn’t “think that this particular issue is ripe.”
“It’s important that we work together and don’t fight amongst each other over details that are going to come out in the wash,” Jandreau said. “We still have a lot of variables we haven’t established.
During the Valley Unified Board of Directors meeting, Superintendent Ben Sirois floated the idea of adding the two facilities into proposed facility’s Career and Technology Education program.
“We’ve seen those types of programs integrated into the school and they weren’t necessarily under the same roof,” Sirois said.