The Valley Unified Board of Directors meeting held on Jan. 27 in the Madawaska High School Library. Credit: Morgan Mitchell | Fiddlehead Focus

MADAWASKA, Maine — The Valley Unified Board of Directors approved and implemented a change to the makeup of its board during a meeting Jan. 28 held at the Madawaska Middle/High School.

The board also announced the law firm it has chosen to answer a complaint filed Jan. 8 against Valley Unified in Aroostook County Superior Court by a group of Fort Kent residents seeking to halt the development of a regional school until some of the steps taken to choose the school’s location can be reviewed.

Joined under the umbrella of the Valley Unified Educational Service Center, the three school administrative units, or SAUs, of MSADs 27, 33 and the Madawaska School Department have worked together to address the declining enrollment and rising costs in education.

In 2018, 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, as well as conduct nonbinding straw polls, and the Maine Department of Education will need to OK plans moving forward.

The original make-up of the Valley Unified Board of Directors included three members from each SAU, one administrator and two school committee members. During Tuesday’s meeting, the board voted to remove the administrators. The three administrators who ultimately were removed participated in the vote for their own removal, and the vote was unanimous.

The change was implemented immediately and the three administrators stepped down from their posts.

Also during Tuesday’s meeting, Superintendent Benjamin Sirois said he had been officially served with papers earlier that day from the Valley United Citizens group that had filed the complaint against Valley Unified earlier in the month. Valley Unified has hired the law firm Farrell, Rosenblatt & Russell out of Bangor.

“The Uniteds are challenging the Unifieds,” Sirois said.

At the heart of the Valley Unified Concerned Citizens legal complaint are the Valley Unified Site Selection Committee’s decision to recommend a Frenchville parcel as the site of the proposed regional high school and the Valley Unified Board of Directors’ decision to ratify the Site Selection Committee’s recommendation.

On Jan. 8, the group filed a legal motion in Aroostook County Superior Court to stop the Valley Unified Process until the actions that led to this point can be reviewed. The group is asking the court to vacate the Valley Unified Board’s Dec. 10 decision to ratify and adopt the Site Selection Committee’s recommendation to build on the Frenchville site.

Sirois said the board has 20 days to respond to the complaint. During a meeting held Jan. 17 between Valley Unified, engineers, and a representative each from the Department of Education and WBRC architects and Commissioner of Education Pender Makin, the commissioner shared her concerns regarding the complaint filed but made it clear the department is committed to supporting Valley Unified.

Regardless of the complaint filed and the 20-day timeline, the Valley Unified Board of Directors plans to move forward with the straw polls which are to take place in February at sites in each of the three school administrative units.

While the straw polls are not designed to definitively determine the fate of the school’s location or core educational curriculum, if voted down in any one community, the project could die.

The first Valley Unified straw poll will take place at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 11, at Madawaska Middle/High School library. The second will be held at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 11, at Dr. Levesque Elementary School cafeteria. The final Valley Unified straw poll will take place at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 12, at the Fort Kent Community High School cafeteria.

The ballots will be sealed after each vote in each town and given to the town clerks to save the results until a later date to “not reveal results that might influence a community one way or the other.”

Sirois also recommended that there be a brief meeting held at 6 p.m. Feb. 13 at the St. John Valley Tech Center to reveal the results of the straw poll by municipality and by district so the results can all be broken down.