FORT KENT, Maine — The SAD 27 board of directors will seek legal advice about the process that resulted in Frenchville being chosen as the potential home of a state-funded regional grades seven-12 school in the St. John Valley, which could stall the multi-year project.
The SAD 27 board voted unanimously Wednesday to appoint a subcommittee to
recommend a lawyer. The board questions the process that led to the 17-member Valley Unified Educational Center Site Selection Committee agreeing on a parcel next to the St. John Valley Technology Center in Frenchville.
The committee chose the Frenchville site over one in Fort Kent near Northern Maine Medical Center, after eliminating 44 other parcels throughout the SAD 27 and 33 districts and Madawaska School District. The three administrative units have joined to seek funding to build a regional school. Last year, the state approved up to $100 million to help pay for school construction.
The Valley Unified Board of Directors was scheduled to meet on Tuesday, Nov. 26, where it would have voted on whether to ratify the site selection committee’s decision.
But in light of the SAD 27 board’s decision Wednesday, SAD 27 superintendent and Valley Unified executive director Ben Sirois agreed to talk with the VU board about possibly postponing that meeting to December, in order to allow the SAD 27 board time to consult with a lawyer.
At issue with the SAD 27 board is what it deems to be flaws in the site selection process, including what it says was the mishandling of the matrix used, and a rush to exclude potential sites other than the two final proposed sites.
Attorney Luke Rossignol of Presque Isle, who said several concerned Fort Kent citizens hired him to investigate the selection process, recommended that SAD 27 evaluate the process before the Valley Unified board ratifies the Frenchville choice.
“If you get there in a flawed process then that’s a problem, because you’re gonna always have people in your community that don’t have buy-in, and that’s a recipe for ongoing long-term problems,” he said.
“I don’t know what you refer to as flawed,” Sirois said. “I don’t know that that is true. I don’t know that that is universally true among everyone that took part in the process.”
SAD 27 board chairman Barry Ouellette minced no words when he shared his feelings on the matter.
“I can tell you right now that I believe that whole process of site selection was flawed, big time. That’s it — that’s what I believe,” he said. “It was flawed and people were pressured and we were dealing with bullies and we put people on (the site selection committee) that were respectful and honest.”
Fort Kent resident and former town councilor Joey Ouellette, one of several community members, said, “We had members of the committee saying certain things were going on that they weren’t comfortable with.”
“None of those committee members had to give their consensus,” Sirois responded.
“I get it, but that’s even worse I guess when you have a position where somebody doesn’t feel comfortable with what’s going on but they still vote for it anyway,” Ouellette said. “I guess to Mr. Rossignol’s point, there are flaws in it.”
The site selection committee reviewed a scoring matrix which engineering firm WBRC, hired by Valley Unified, used to rate sites for items ranging from whether it was located near a police department to whether it offered a nice view.
The final scores for Frenchville and Fort Kent were 147 and 144, respectively. Based on the matrix scores, site selection committee members reached consensus Oct. 29 on the Frenchville site and agreed to move forward with the school consolidation process.
No item on the matrix held more point value than another, and some Fort Kent area members of the committee expressed concern that there was no consideration for a site being near a hospital.
There was a matrix item that addressed that, but the committee eliminated it from consideration at the Oct. 29 meeting with a vote of 11-6 before the committee came to consensus on the Frenchville site. One committee member — SAD 27 board member Jake Theriault — contested the process the next day, writing a letter to SAD 27 and community members on the selection committee.
“I should have asked for a delay of the board to think about the matrix and the scores and convene later to talk about consensus,” Theriault said in the letter.
Peter Caron, Valley Unified coordinator of innovative practice and community outreach, said at Wednesday’s meeting this process has been a learning experience for all involved.
“Was it a perfect process? I don’t think anyone would say that by any stretch of the imagination. It wasn’t a totally imperfect process either — look at what worked,” Caron said.
“It was a lot closer to an imperfect process,” SAD 27 board member Gary Sibley Jr. replied. “If the process was fair and objective, I would have supported (the Frenchville site), but don’t feel it was at all.”
Sibley noted that he feels the committee rushed to settle on the Frenchville site.
“There were better sites out there than the two left in my opinion,” he said.
Another Fort Kent area community member chided the board for failing to stand up to the communities of Frenchville and Madawaska in the site selection process.
“They manipulated you. They played a better game of chess,” the man said.
Board member Toby Jandreau encouraged the community give the board time to regroup and decide where to go from here. He said he agreed with Sibley that the site selection committee acted hastily in removing 43 of the proposed regional school sites during one meeting.
“Once bitten, twice shy. I feel like we’ve been bitten. We came into this with open arms … we didn’t send fighters in; we sent our best thinkers. It’s not done; we’re not even close to done,” Jandreau said. “This board needs to make some hard decisions and we need help from outside most likely.”
Clarence “Curr” Soucy, an SAD 27 board member who teaches school in Madawaska, said he has come to believe students want to see the regional school take place.
“I’m an advocate of kids. These kids are looking for a quality education,” Soucy said. “At the end of the day these kids want the school … ask the kids.”
The board agreed to appoint Jandreau, Sibley and Theriault to the subcommittee to seek a lawyer.
The SAD 27 board of directors will hold its next public meeting at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 19, at Fort Kent Community High School where they will consider and vote on the sub-committee’s recommendations.