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Valley Unified divided on sites, decides to narrow down to 11

FRENCHVILLE, Maine — After heated discussions over a motion to eliminate a majority of proposed sites on the basis of proximity to either Madawaska or Fort Kent, Valley Unified Site Selection Committee members voted down the motion, and instead reached a consensus that the engineering firm would narrow down the options to 11 proposed sites.

Administrators and school board members from Madawaska School Department and SADs 27 and 33 in the Fort Kent and Frenchville areas have been working together for about three years now to combine resources and save money in an effort to address declining enrollments and rising costs in education.

Last year, the state authorized funding the Valley Unified effort up to $100 million for a new St. John Valley educational facility that would replace three high schools and serve students from Grand Isle to Allagash.

Joined under the umbrella of the Valley Unified Regional Service Center, the three school administrative units, or SAUs, continue to move ahead with the site selection and design process. Residents of the member communities will need to vote to approve the final project, and the Maine Department of Education will need to OK plans moving forward.

In March, the Valley Unified board voted to select WBRC Architects and Engineers of Bangor upon recommendation by the Site Selection Committee of 17 after conducting a series of interviews.

During the May 14 meeting, Ray Bolduc from WBRC Architects/Engineers reviewed the site selection criteria matrix that each member of the Site Selection Committee will use to rate potential sites. With more than 40 sites to review, the criteria matrix took into account things such as impact on wetlands, drainage, adjacent land use, offsite, sidewalks, the site’s history, transportation miles, the lot size, high performance school site and safety.

Paul Cyr of the Valley Unified Site Selection Committee made a motion at the June 19 Site Selection Committee meeting to direct the Valley Unified Board of Directors to cease consideration of all sites in Madawaska, all sites in Fort Kent, except the one on the border of Frenchville, and all sites in Frenchville and St. Agatha except those located to the east and west of, and including, the St. John Valley Technology Center.

The motion was preceded by a statement from Thomas Kent, a member of Valley Unified Board of Directors and of Madawaska School Committee, in which he said engineering firm WBRC needed to understand the “politics of the Valley.”

“The politics of the Valley is a little bit different than anywhere else in the state of Maine,” Kent said at the June 19 meeting. “So, if you’re looking at sites in Madawaska, forget them, they aren’t going to work. If you’re looking at sites in Fort Kent, forget them, they aren’t going to work. Look at sites that are in a location between those two major communities, and quit spending our money, or the state’s money, looking at sites that aren’t even going to make the roster.”

Kent added that members of the Site Selection Committee should be looking at the sites with the firm.

“We did not appoint these members to be rubber stamps for the engineering and architectural firm. We appointed them to look at the sites along with the architectural firm,” he said. “So when the architectural firm looks at these sites, they should have representatives from this committee looking at the sites at the same time they are.”

That was not, however, the general consensus for other members of the committee. Scott Voisine was among the nine to vote down the motion and one who thought taking groups to each of the sites to review architectural specifications was “ridiculous.”

“We’ve hired an organization that knows what they’re doing. The suggestion that they bring a group of us on every site to review it is quite honestly ridiculous in my opinion,” Voisine said. “To take away the options using an emotional motion, to me, is literally on the edge of being unethical, and I encourage everyone to vote down this motion.”

The committee voted on the motion, and it failed with four votes in favor and nine against.

After more discussion, the committee decided that the architectural firm would narrow the field of sites for further review to 11 that have been deemed “most suited” for construction and have had on-site reviews conducted, according to Peter Caron, coordinator of innovative practice and community outreach for the Valley Unified Regional Service Center.

Those 11 sites have not yet been identified or released. WBRC is slated to give an update on the sites at the next Site Selection Committee meeting at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, July 16, at Madawaska Middle High School Library.

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