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Madawaska School Committee updated on Valley Unified, committee takes a stance

MADAWASKA, Maine — During the Madawaska School Committee meeting Aug. 5, Valley Unified Educational Service Center Superintendent Ben Sirois updated the committee and administrators on the elimination of two additional potential sites in St. Agatha and Fort Kent for the new school. The committee also determined their official stance regarding the straw poll and voting process for the proposed regional high school. 

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 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.

As of Aug. 5, the sites for the proposed high school have been narrowed down to four sites with the elimination of sites 33, and clumped sites 44, 45, and 46. That leaves one site each in Fort Kent and St. Agatha, and two sites in Frenchville. 

Sirois said WBRC reported that after conducting site visits with the members of the site selection committee, “It was discovered that two landowners or persons holding lease agreements (lots 33 and 44, 45 & 46) were not willing to sell or relinquish their rights, so those sites were eliminated from the potential school site list. Remaining sites for further review are 3A/3B, 11, 35 and 43), a total of four.” 

The Site Selection Committee also has discussed a possible straw poll on the proposed sites — a topic that was tabled at the last Valley Unified Education Service Center Board of Directors meeting at the end of July. 

The question is how to conduct a straw poll that would gauge public support. 

Each school board committee for MSADs 27 and 33, and Madawaska School Department have been or will be asked for an official stance on how the straw poll will be conducted when it is time to cross that bridge. 

There were three options for how to conduct the poll, although deciding which option to take will also determine the referendum process and voter approval requirements. 

For the straw poll, the first option is to ask each administrative unit, making it three separate results for each public hearing. The second option is to ask the Valley as a whole at a single public hearing. And the third is to have one single public meeting as well, with the only difference being in the voter approval requirement. 

For the referendum process, after the site and concept approval, option 1 is for the three school units to each have a referendum election. For the second and third options, there would only be one referendum election across the valley. 

For the voter approval requirement, option one is lined up for separate votes in each school unit allowing for a school unit “veto” result. Option two is a collective region-level vote for a majority rules result. And the final option would be where there are town-level votes for a town majority rules result from the eight communities served. 

If voter approval is not secured by whichever option is chosen, then the project will not move forward. 

Madawaska School Committee unanimously voted for option one while the stance of MSADs 27 and 33 are not yet known. 

While the three school committees are being consulted, they are not the ones to make the final decision as to which option to choose. The Valley Unified Board of Directors will take their votes strongly into consideration.

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