MADAWASKA, Maine — After a nearly yearlong effort to determine the site of a state-funded regional grades seven-12 school in the St. John Valley, the Valley Unified Educational Service Center Site Selection Committee came to a consensus during a public meeting Tuesday evening to recommend a parcel in Frenchville.
The Frenchville lot, which is located next to St. John Valley Technology Center, along with a lot located in Fort Kent just east of Northern Maine Medical, were the remaining two proposed sites after the committee considered recommendations from WBRC — the engineering firm evaluating the sites for useability — and eliminated nine other sites. The committee and WBRC had started with 46 sites.
The 17-member committee reviewed a site selection matrix Tuesday that favored the Frenchville site by three points over the Fort Kent site. The final scores were 147 and 144, respectively.
Because the Frenchville site scored highest, the committee was tasked with either reaching a consensus to agree to that site, or taking a formal vote if there were any dissenters. Each committee member agreed by consensus to the Frenchville site at the meeting.
“Consensus basically means that we all were OK with the idea of that site being selected. ‘Perhaps not everyone’s first choice, but can live with it’ were the facilitator’s words,” said committee member Sarah Ashley of Fort Kent.
Last year, the state authorized funding up to $100 million for a new St. John Valley educational facility that would replace three high schools in SAD 27, SAD 33 and Madawaska School Department. On July 30, the Valley Unified Board voted to add grades seven and eight to the proposed school.
Many in the audience of about 50 community members attending Tuesday’s meeting at Madawaska Middle/High School stood and applauded the committee’s decision.
“Last night, we witnessed 17 committee members unify for a common goal,” Valley Unified superintendent Ben Sirois said. “Although they represent various constituents and communities, they understand the regional school is too important to lose and showed that by coming to consensus. Given the unity I witnessed yesterday evening, I am encouraged and very hopeful for this project to be a successful one.”
But one committee member was having second thoughts Wednesday about having agreed to the Frenchville site.
“A school being built in Frenchville seems like the bridge to nowhere analogy except it is the school to nowhere,” Jake Theriault of Fort Kent said.
Theriault explained that by this analogy he is not comparing Frenchville to a “nowhere” town, but rather feels the site selection process was rushed in the end and the committee should have given the matrix results more consideration before coming to a decision.
He said his “Bridge to Nowhere” reference harkened back to the infamous Alaska Gravina Island Bridge, which was projected to cost nearly $400 million dollars in federal funding and which ultimately did not pan out due to political infighting.
Theriault said he had a sleepless night after the meeting and sent a letter to all SAD 27 board members and to the community members who represented the school district on the Site Selection Committee. SAD 27 board members represent the towns of Fort Kent, St. John, St. Francis, New Canada and Wallagrass.I should have asked for a delay of the board to think about the matrix and the scores and convene later to talk about consensus.”
“I felt pressured to make a decision about the sites. I do not believe that I was allowed enough time to think over the matrix scores,” Theriault wrote. “Based on my thoughts since the meeting, not believe the scores to be truly reflective of the reality of the situation at this point.”
Theriault said that he has particular concerns regarding item 8, “Services,” which the committee voted 11-6 at Tuesday’s meeting to eliminate from the matrix.
“[Item 8] was eliminated without as much discussion as it should have been. I believe it was purposeful since it favored the Fort Kent site,” Theriault wrote.
If kept in the matrix, item 8 would have allowed points for sites located within a half-mile of a shared parking lot for public events, library, health clinic or day care facility as well as points for sites that do not require children to cross a high volume street.
Ashley pointed out during the meeting that item 8 listed proximity of a health clinic to the school site. “I just feel strongly about there being point three, a health clinic. We don’t have any health clinic or hospital anyplace else in the matrix,” she said.
“I think there’s another side to that coin, and that is when we had the emergency people in, there was quite a bit of discussion about the number of times someone had to be transported by ambulance to a hospital or to a clinic, and it was pretty much zero, so I really don’t have any problems with removing this whole section 8 from the matrix,” committee member Paul Cyr of Madawaska said during Tuesday’s meeting.
Not only did Theriault vote against the removal of item 8 from the matrix but added in his letter that “there was room to add more services such as the dentist and eye care.”
“I have strong concerns that citizens of MSAD #27 will ask why such an important matrix item was voted out so quickly in the meeting, and we will not be able to answer in any reasonable fashion that makes sense,” Theriault wrote. “It will seem that it was eliminated to bias the Frenchville site.”
As it had been written, item 8 provided an opportunity for each site to earn an additional 10 points.
Theriault made a motion during Tuesday’s meeting to reconsider the vote that removed item 8 from the matrix, but the committee voted a second time to eliminate it.
“There were more examples of where we should have pressured [Ray Bolduc of WBRC] for more information, but I did not have time to think about it and ask a question. Based on his responses last night, or lack thereof, there were a few matrix items that could have received more points,” Theriault added in his letter. “I believe meeting and discussing this further is warranted.”
The committee also considered on Tuesday removing matrix item 26, “Busing,” which weighted student travel distances in miles, but in the end agreed to keep it.
Committee member Ryan D. Pelletier said Wednesday that he feels the committee made the right decision in choosing the Frenchville site.
“I went into this process with the idea that I would let the matrix guide my decision. I truly would have supported either site and as we saw last night, both sites could have easily come out on top,” Pelletier said. “I support the Frenchville site because in the end, even though it scored higher it also is the better site for the future that we have no idea will bring. This is a project for the next 50 years. I envision not only what will be built for a new school today, but also the possibilities for added facilities to support the optimum in the future.”
The next step is for the Valley Unified Board to decide whether to ratify the Site Selection Committee’s decision. If ratified, the matter will go to the public in a nonbinding straw poll vote. The straw poll vote tallies and other project information will be sent to the Maine Department of Education, which will either approve or reject the site. If approved, a concept design committee will be formed to work on design plans for the proposed school.
“Presentations of this process will occur in each School Administrative Unit in the upcoming months,” Sirois said. “Following those presentations, we hope that the communities will allow us to continue the next phase of this work, which now moves to concept design. We want to be able to show the St. John Valley what this school will look like, and what programs it will support.”
Voters in all three school administrative units will ultimately decide at referendum whether the school will be built. If the majority of voters in any of the three units votes against the new school, the state will withdraw the funding and offer it to school units elsewhere in Maine.
The next meeting of the Valley Unified Board of Directors will be held at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 26, at St. John Valley Technology Center in Frenchville. The board is expected to take action on the Site Selection Committee’s recommendation during that meeting.