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Madawaska school, town officials hear update on education regionalization effort

MADAWASKA, Maine — The Madawaska Board of Selectmen entertained a meeting Monday evening with the Madawaska School Department’s school committee members to discuss the progress and status of the Valley Unified Regional Service Center project.

During the meeting, Superintendent of MSAD 27 Ben Sirois and Superintendent of Madawaska School Department Gisele Dionne presented a progress report on the regionalization efforts involving the two school administrative units and SAD 33.

“This strategic plan is not going to go into a binder and sit on a shelf collecting dust,” Sirois told those assembled Monday.

This regional strategic plan, now called Rightsizing Education in the Upper St. John Valley 2017-2027, dates back to 2014, when the superintendents from the three school administrative units met to discuss the declining enrollment at their schools and formed a committee to help come up with possible solutions.

By 2015, the committee had reached a conclusion and presented school officials one single recommendation: “School enrollment continues to decline. This causes program problems and cost concerns. Consolidation, regionalization, program review, staffing changes need to be addressed. Building usage needs to be addressed. A committee should immediately be put to work to explore the best approach to get this done. It is of grave importance that a tangible timeline be created and be revised quarterly.”

According to Monday’s presentation, that recommendation translated to: “the units need time, a plan, and funding.”

By September 2017, the three school administrative units had approved a strategic plan to regionalize; received more than $600,000 in grant money; and been named the top contender for a state grant to build a pilot consolidated school combining three area high schools. While the plan calls for consolidating schools and administrative functions, the three school administrative units will maintain an elementary school in each of their respective areas.

In September of this year, the Department of Education placed the Valley Unified proposal on its approved construction project list. Much remains to be done before the state gives final approval and agrees to fund up to $100 million for the project, including selection of a site for the new school.

While that process will take months, Dionne said during Monday’s meeting that by July 2019, Valley Unified will have one central office with only one superintendent.

“For three superintendents to say, ‘Yes,’ to going down to one superintendent … that’s unusual,” Dionne said. “We’re each going to have our roles.”

She also shared with the group a flow chart explaining the lengthy school construction review and approval process.

Madawaska Town Manager Gary Picard said Tuesday that he thought the meeting was “informative,” specifically about the chart showing the “process from beginning to end.”

“The more informed our community members are about this process, the history that got us here, and the bright future ahead, the better chance we have at a unified region supporting education in the St. John Valley,” Sirois said.

Madawaska Board of Selectmen Chairperson Denise Duperre said that the meeting to review the strategic plan and the opportunity to have a two-way discussion was “essential to keep an open line of communication between the two boards, and have a better understanding of the possible impacts to finance, community and students moving forward.”

Duperre said members of the Board of Selectmen have been proactive when it comes to gathering information they need to make the “best informed decisions moving forward” and anticipated that those future decisions will be the “most beneficial to our tax base and citizens.”

“We have a mindset that shared services, between communities, is needed in order to continue to be able to offer them, but ever mindful that our taxpayers are who we are working for and we will continue to be transparent and communicate effectively to all,” Duperre said.

Selectman Brenda Theriault said that she was in agreement with the vision of the Valley Unified Regional Service Center, but that she had a concern.

“It certainly would be beneficial for the students of the Valley,” she said. “That being said, my biggest concern and from what I hear from our own residents will be the location.”

In October, members of the Valley Unified Board approved a site selection process that involves creating a committee comprised of members from all communities within the proposed service area.

The site selection committee will serve in an advisory capacity to the regional Valley Unified board, which will have final say.

The selection panel is to be comprised of nine diverse community members, three business partner representatives, two university representatives, and three Valley Unified Board members.  

Madawaska has yet to name their three community members, but Dionne said that would be determined at the school committee’s next meeting on Dec. 10.

“We continue our efforts in being transparent and providing information about the regionalization process,” she said.

For updates on the Valley Unified Regional Service Center, visit http://valleyunified.blogspot.com/

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