FORT KENT, Maine — Six years worth of effort to build a new state-funded regional school in the St. John Valley officially came to an end on Wednesday.
The Maine State Board of Education voted to remove the Valley Unified Education Service Center Project from the state’s major capital school construction approved projects list with a vote of 7-0. Board Chairperson Wilson Hess, who previously served in the St. John Valley as University of Maine at Fort Kent president, abstained from the vote.
The decision came on the heels of a unanimous vote last week by the State Board of Education School Construction Committee to recommend removing the proposed school from the list.
The state board has final say on all major capital school construction projects that receive state funds.
The Valley Unified partners — Madawaska School department, SAD 33, which includes Frenchville, and SAD 27, which includes Fort Kent — faced a Dec. 31, 2020, deadline to form a Regional School Unit or lose a potential $100 million in state funding to build the grades 7-12 school, Education Commissioner Pender Makin had told the group in the fall.
The school administrative units failed to agree to the RSU governance structure during mediation on Dec. 21.
At the heart of the impasse was the SAD 27 board’s opposition to the site selection process that resulted in a Frenchville lot being chosen for the new school, and distribution of voting power on the Valley Unified board.
The SAD 27 board questioned the process that led to the 17-member Valley Unified Educational Center Site Selection Committee agreeing on a parcel next to the St. John Valley Technology Center in Frenchville as the site of the proposed school.
Voting power on the Valley Unified board was also at issue with the SAUs.
Under the Valley Unified Interlocal Agreement in which SAD 27 pays more than 50 percent of the bill (proportional to student population and valuation), but gets 33 percent of the vote, the majority of any costs would be covered by SAD 27 communities.
The SAD 27 school board sent a letter to the DOE after the failed mediation attempt in December, requesting that the Valley Unified regional school project be removed from the construction list.
The project was initially embraced by voters in all three SAUs during a Feb. 13, 2020, straw poll to gauge support for the Frenchville site.
The Madawaska School Department, composed of voters from Madawaksa, voted in favor of the location for the proposed high school with 439 yes votes, 26 no votes and one blank submission.
MSAD 33, composed of voters from Frenchville and St. Agatha, voted in favor of the selected location with a total of 397 yes votes, two no votes and zero blanks with Frenchville taking credit for 267 yes votes and the two no votes, while St. Agatha produced 130 yes votes.
Fort Kent, New Canada, St. Francis, St. John Plantation and Wallagrass make up MSAD 27. Every community had a majority of yes votes except Fort Kent, which voted 327 yes, 350 no and three blank. New Canada voted 25 yes to 20 no votes. St. Francis voted in favor 11 yes to 10 no votes. St. John Plantation voted 14 yes to 10 no, and Wallagrass voted 42 yes to 29 no with two blanks. The total votes tallied up for MSAD 27 were 419 yes votes, 419 no votes and five blanks.
Momentum for the project changed throughout the year as the SAD 27 board and school district town leaders became concerned that the school being built in Frenchville might have a negative impact on SAD 27 towns.
In a Dec. 17, 2020, letter addressed to the SAD 27 board ahead of the Dec. 21 mediation, town managers from Fort Kent, St. John, New Canada, Wallagrass and St. Francis expressed their “full support” of the SAD 27 school board’s opposition to the Frenchville site for the proposed school.
“The current plan to relocate the school outside of Fort Kent would only destabilize local services to Fort Kent and its outlying communities,” the letter said. “According to statistics, we have managed to see growth for the communities of Fort Kent, St. John, St. Francis, Wallagrass, New Canada and Allagash, which cannot be said for other areas within the Valley.”
The project divided the St. John Valley towns, with many residents of the SAD 33 and Madawaska School Department calling for boycotts of SAD 27 area businesses.
In their own letter to the Maine DOE dated Dec. 31, the SAD 27 board asked that the school regionalization project be terminated. “Because there is no prospect of an agreement on the issues necessary to form a new governance structure, MSAD 27 does not believe there is any future for the Valley Unified construction project,” the SAD 27 board wrote. “An extension would only cause further damage in our already divided communities.”
The St. John Valley school is one of two the Maine Department of Education had approved for funding in its pilot project to help neighboring smaller schools deal with declining enrollment and high costs. The state has already notified the other one, which was in southern Aroostook, that its project would not go forward. The state has shifted those funds to a proposed regional school project in Piscataquis County.
Correction: A headline on an earlier version of this story had the wrong group killing the project.