FORT KENT, Maine — Since the Valley Unified Site Selection Committee in October chose a Frenchville lot over a Fort Kent lot as the site of a proposed regional school for the St. John Valley, the communities have been debating the issue at public meetings, on social media and even through literally opposing billboard signs facing one another from either end of Bridge Street in Fort Kent.
An upcoming series of nonbinding straw polls will gauge community support for the proposed regional school, which would combine grades 7-12 students in the administrative school units of SAD 27, SAD 33 and Madawaska School Department into one regional school. Voters will choose yes or no in the straw polls by secret written ballot on accepting the Frenchville site as the place to build the regional school.
The Maine Department of Education would fund $100 million of the project, and the communities have been working for more than a year to get to this point.
A postcard flyer concerning the straw polls and addressed to local postal customers arrived in Fort Kent area mailboxes Thursday. The unknown author encourages SAD 27 residents to vote “no,” citing Fort Kent’s unique status of educating students from pre-kindergarten all the way through a four-year university degree in one town.
“The history and future of Warrior Pride is being threatened by relocating the school outside of Fort Kent,” the flyer said.
The flyer lists numerous concerns including increased travel distances for students and teachers and loss of economic dollars for the town. The author of the flyer also notes that SAD 27 has “50 % of the students, 50 % of the bill to pay, and 33 % voting rights” on the Valley Unified Board.
SAD 27 board members also issued a statement ahead of the straw poll vote in which they clarify their position on Valley Unified’s regionalization efforts.
“We continue to support the idea of partnering with the districts in the Valley Unified Regional Service Center and the construction of a new Regional High School,” the letter said. “We do not, however, support the site selection process and the subsequent results. The tools used in the site selection process were a poor fit to evaluate the needs of our region.”
The board also characterizes the implementation of the site selection process as “highly problematic.”
“We have made multiple requests to slow the process down to address and rectify these issues in the hope of being able to move forward with this project. However, these requests continue to be voted down by our collaborating partners. Our inability as a board to address these problems alerted us to even bigger problems with the Interlocal Agreement and the means by which Valley Unified governs itself,” the board said. “It is for these reasons that we do not support this project moving forward as is. We will continue to work on resolving these issues in hopes of making this school a reality.”
The town of Frenchville also shared a letter with SAD 33 area residents earlier this week, encouraging people to support the project in the straw poll.
“Please come and let your voice be heard for the new proposed Valley Unified Regional High School. This is your one and only chance to have a brand-new school built in our community,” the letter said.
The letter goes on to say that if the Frenchville site falls through, “the school will not be built up here anywhere for our students. This is an amazing opportunity for the future of our students. Please come out, be heard, and let’s make this happen!”
Site selection committee member Doug Cyr, a Fort Kent resident who was born and raised in Madawaska, encourages people to vote “yes” at the straw polls so that the regionalization process can advance to the next steps.
He said that after the straw polls, more information about the impact of the regional school will become available, including the economic impact on the individual towns.
“It is important that we vote yes at the straw polls because the process only allows us to get further information and more detailed information with regards to costing and future costings … without that information I don’t know how anybody could vote no,” he said. “There is no loss and no fear in voting yes. In reality [the regional school] only comes to fruition at the referendum vote so why would you throw out a hundred million dollars of potentially expanding the opportunity for our kids out the window without knowing what you [are] voting on?”
Cyr pointed out that there is misinformation coming from both sides of the debate.
“There are two different signs in town. The first one that came out alludes to the possibility of taxes going up and the other one says taxes will be going down. That was strategically done because nobody knows,” Cyr said.
Cyr added that he is discouraged by the way members of both sides of the debate have treated one another on social media.
“Any change is emotional, but it would be nice if people could debate respectfully, and I think some people are really getting too emotional,” Cyr said.
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 in Frenchville. The final straw poll will take place at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 12, at the Fort Kent Community High School cafeteria.
Straw poll results will be announced at a Valley Unified Board of Directors meeting at 6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 13, at the St. John Valley Technology Center in Frenchville.
St. John Valley Times writer Morgan Mitchell contributed to this report.