Hundreds of voters turned out to cast their secret ballots Tuesday in straw polls held in Madawaska and Frenchville to gauge public interest in building a new St. John Valley regional high school at a site in Frenchville.
Questions after the presentations centered on the viability of the project if one of the school districts votes negatively in the straw poll, the potential timeline for completion of the school if the project moves forward and court action taken by a group of residents who want the site selection process to be reviewed.
Fort Kent’s nonbinding straw poll vote on the issue will be held at 6 p.m. Wednesday, and all ballots from the three school districts will be sealed until counted Thursday. The results will be announced that evening.
Joined under the umbrella of the Valley Unified Educational Service Center, the three school administrative units of MSADs 27 and 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 the high schools in Fort Kent, Frenchville and Madawaska, and serve students from Grand Isle to Allagash.
The straw poll question was: “Are you in favor of the Frenchville 3A/3B site as the location for the proposed Valley Unified Regional School?”
In Madawaska, more than 500 people turned out to have their voices heard through secret ballot, and it was standing room only at Dr. Levesque Elementary School in Frenchville where around 300 voters packed the room there as well.
The night began in both towns with presentations about Valley Unified followed by time for questions and answers from the public prior to voting for or against the proposed site.
During their presentations, WBRC representatives talked about the schools in use already, and what the costs would be to renovate each facility: Fort Kent Community High School, $13.5 million; Madawaska Middle/High School, $18.2 million; Wisdom Middle/High School $18.8 million (replacement cost); and St. John Valley Technology Center, $2 million.
After taking a look at the other high schools in the Valley, WBRC determined that Madawaska Middle High School has a huge problem with the sprinkler system. Some other issues are the lack of security at the entrance of the school without a vestibule and the lack of elevators given the multiple floors.
The Wisdom Middle/High School building also lacks a sprinkler system, needs a new roof and contains a lot of combustible materials. It is also deficient in terms of ADA compliance, particularly with regard to bathrooms, door hardware and locker rooms. When entering the front door of the building students and visitors are met with a set of stairs and no wheelchair ramp, according to WBRC representative Michael Johanning.
“Imagine someone in a wheelchair or with any type of mobility impairment what they might be coming up against,” he said.
“It wouldn’t make a lot of sense to do any type of major renovation at that facility,” Johanning said.
Ray Bolduc of WBRC presented on the site selection process and what happened at each meeting with the committee as well as some of the Maine Department of Education suggested site selection criteria.
After going over the criteria used, Bolduc briefed the audience on the Frenchville site and its possibility for expansion. They also discussed the timeline to expect for the project, with a rough estimate that it would come to referendum in a year.
“This is a process that is going to take time,” Superintendent Ben Sirois said. “This is a rough overview of the timeline — those dates are not set in stone. This is a process that is going to take time.”
During a question and answer session at Madawaska, an audience member asked what would happen if a community voted no.
Sirois said that they have been advised that “this is a regional project so it needs regional support” and that a negative straw poll would cause reconsideration on the part of the Department of Education.
“They will decide if the project will succeed or not,” Sirois siad.
Another resident asked about the possibilities of regionalizing at the elementary school level as well.
“We can do a lot of things so we don’t have to regionalize our babies,” Sirois said.
Other questions arose about the lawsuit looming over Valley Unified by the Valley United Concerned Citizens, a group in Fort Kent that wants the project suspended until the site selection process can be reviewed.
Sirois said at the information session that much of that information was not known but that he would release it to the St. John Valley Times and Fiddlehead Focus when it was.
At Frenchville, one SAD 33 voter asked whether people from outside the SAD 27 administrative unit would be welcome to attend Wednesday’s straw poll in Fort Kent and ask questions at that meeting.
Peter Caron, coordinator of innovative practice and community outreach for Valley Unified, said that the majority of SAD 27 voters in attendance at the Fort Kent straw poll would have to vote to allow the non-resident to speak at the meeting.
Another SAD 33 voter asked what would happen if the straw poll question fails to pass in all three school administrative units.
“We have to keep in mind that this is a regional school project; in applying for this project we signed on as member partners,” Sirois said.
He added that if voters overwhelmingly vote against the project, “it’s ultimately going to be the end of it.”
Sirois said he is unsure whether the Department of Education will continue to move the project forward if an administrative unit votes against the Frenchville site by a narrow margin.
A meeting to read the results of the straw polls in the three towns will be held at 6 p.m. Thursday at the St. John Valley Technology Center. There will be two more opportunities for the public to vote — a second straw poll after the design phase of the project, and the final full referendum that accepts or refuses the school.