MADAWASKA, Maine — The Valley Unified Board of Directors on Tuesday evening ratified the recommendation of a site selection committee to proceed with a Frenchville site for a proposed regional school.
The board voted 7-2 for ratification. Two of SAD 27’s three Valley Unified board members, Gary Sibley Jr. and Toby Jandreau, voted against the ratification.
Joined under the umbrella of the Valley Unified Regional Service Center, the three school administrative units, or SAUs, of SAD 27, SAD 33 and Madawaska School District have worked together to address the declining enrollment and rising costs in education.
Last year, the state authorized funding the Valley Unified effort up to $100 million for a new St. John Valley educational facility that would replace three high schools and serve students from Grand Isle to Allagash.
Residents of the member communities will need to vote to approve the final project, and the Maine Department of Education will need to OK plans moving forward. The VU board will send results of the ratification vote as well as straw poll results to the Department of Education, which will ultimately decide whether the school regionalization process will move forward.
Two people spoke during public participation at Tuesday’s meeting prior to the ratification vote, including attorney Luke Rossignol, who said he was speaking on behalf of an unnamed group of concerned citizens from Fort Kent.
Rossignol recommended the Valley Unified board consider reopening the site selection process before moving ahead with ratification of the Frenchville site.
“I know that it is easy for people in the public as well as for people on your board to fall into the sort of assumption or trap that my clients simply want to derail this process. I’m here to tell you, members of the board, that is not what my clients want,” Rossignol said.
Rossignol said that his clients feel the site selection committee process was flawed in that several members of that committee representing SAD 27 felt rushed and influenced to vote in a way that made them uncomfortable. He also cited what his clients consider flaws in the matrix used to select the Frenchville site over one in Fort Kent.
“If you have a big constituency in the group that feels the process was skewed, you have a major problem. That’s why we think you need to go back and redo that process and address those issues,” he said.
Jacob Theriault, who represented the town of New Canada on the site selection committee, also recommended the VU board reopen the site selection process before ratifying the Frenchville site.
“I feel like the process was a little rushed and we weren’t as informed as we could have been as a site selection committee, and I wish we would have had more time to come to an informed decision,” Theriault said.
Theriault added that the site selection matrix should have been weighted to place priority on some matrix items over others.
“I think as a Valley Unified board, you might want to re-evaluate some of those items, thank you,” Theriault said.
Jandreau asked WBRC engineer Ray Bolduc how long the site selection committee had to decide on the site after receiving news of the matrix scores rating each of the final two sites. Bolduc said the committee voted during the same meeting in which the firm shared the matrix scores with the site selection committee.
Sibley Jr. said the towns comprising the three school administrative units that make up the Valley Unified Educational Service Center lack unification.
“That’s part of the problem that we’re up against right now, is we don’t have mutual respect for one another right now. These communities work against each other … Madawaska started off at the very beginning, we have it written in an email, ‘no way, no how will we support a school in Fort Kent’,” Sibley Jr. said.
“I don’t know who wrote that,” said Tom Kent, Madawaska representative on the board.
“We have it in an email from one of the site selection committee members,” Sibley Jr. said. “My point is if we cannot be united this is not gonna go forward. When we have a board member on here that is putting negativity out on social media about ‘Do not do business in Fort Kent,’ is that going to get us to where we need to go?”
“Who’s doing that?” Kent asked.
“He is referencing a comment that I made that had nothing to do with the Valley Unified board, nothing. It’s a personal opinion that I had,” said Valley Unified board member Lisa Bernier.
“Right, but as a member of this board, if that is your opinion and that is your attitude on this board, how can we expect the Valley to be united if we can’t be united as a board? We cannot be encouraging people to not do business in Fort Kent and to hope to have support to move forward with this,” Sibley Jr. said.
After the board ratified the site selection, the dates and locations for the straw poll were set.
In September, the Valley Unified Board of Directors took into consideration the stance of the three communities’ official boards before they decided that the straw poll would be conducted by way of option one.
Option one is to ask each administrative unit, which will result in three separate poll results for each public hearing. For the referendum process, after the site and concept approval, the three school units will each have a referendum election. For the voter approval requirement, option one is lined up for separate votes in each school unit allowing for a school unit “veto” result.
If voter approval is not secured, then the project will not move forward.
The straw polls will be held for MSAD 27 at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 11, at the Community High School in Fort Kent; for MSAD 33 at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 12, at Dr. Levesque Elementary School in Frenchville; and for Madawaska at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 12, at Madawaska High School.
The Tuesday, Dec. 10, meeting of the Valley Unified Board of Directors can be viewed online at the WFKTV Channel 4 Facebook page.