FORT KENT, Maine — A proposed regional high school in the St. John Valley may soon be without the largest of the three school districts involved in the project.
The SAD 27 Board of Directors expressed its intention to withdraw from Valley Unified Regional Service Center in an Aug. 26 letter addressed to the other two school units — SAD 33 and Madawaska School Department.
SAD 27 (Fort Kent, St. John Plantation, St. Francis, Wallagrass and New Canada), along with SAD 33 (Frenchville and St. Agatha) and Madawaska School Department, entered into an interlocal agreement in 2018 to form Valley Unified with the aim of building a state-funded regional school to address declining enrollment and rising costs in education.
“This letter is to notify you that it is the desire of the Board of Directors of Maine School Administrative District No. 27 to immediately initiate steps to withdraw from the Valley Unified Education Service Center,” read the letter, which is signed by all seven SAD 27 board members.
The primary issue cited in the letter has to do with what SAD 27 considers an inequitable distribution of voting power on the Valley Unified board.
Based on the interlocal agreement, SAD 27 holds a third of the votes on the VU board, but is responsible for at least 50 percent of the Valley Unified budget, with that percentage expected to grow in the coming years.
In June, the Valley Unified Board initiated a “think tank,” composed of two representatives from each of the three district boards, to discuss the issue of proportional voting, among other areas of contention.
The SAD 27 board also raised concerns in the letter about the outcome of the Valley Unified school site selection straw poll.
A non-binding Feb. 13 straw poll saw a total of 1,708 residents in the three districts vote in favor of a Frenchville site for the new school. Voting in SAD 27 was tied at 419 yes and no votes. Fort Kent — the largest town in the district — voted against the project 350 no to 327 yes.
Before the straw poll, a group of Fort Kent residents filed a complaint in Aroostook County Superior Court in Caribou in January asking a judge to put a temporary stop to the school consolidation process.
The plaintiffs, Valley United Concerned Citizens, through their attorney Luke Rossignol, cited issues with the site selection process, namely that the matrix changed during the process in a way that favored the Frenchville site over one in Fort Kent; that the VU board included administrators from each of the three school administrative units who combined to form Valley Unified; and that several members of the site selection committee felt unduly pressured to vote in favor of the Frenchville site.
That lawsuit is pending.
The board also said in its letter that it has not seen any attempts by the other boards in Valley Unified to respond to SAD 27’s concerns.
“Our Board cannot continue to support Valley Unified, or the construction of a new high school to serve the communities of the Upper Saint John Valley, without a governance structure that provides all communities proportionate voting representation on the governing board in accordance with Maine law and constitutional requirements,” the letter read. “ It is clear from the lack of action by your boards that there is no willingness to take the steps necessary to make this happen.”
“In the absence of any progress on this front, it is the desire of our Board to withdraw from Valley Unified.”
The SAD 27 board said it is prepared to initiate the withdrawal process at the next meeting of the Valley Unified Board on Monday, Sept 21.