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Site selection matrix gets a makeover from committee

FRENCHVILLE, Maine —  The Valley Unified Site Selection Committee revamped the matrix used to help determine a site for the proposed regional high school at its Oct. 8 meeting at Dr. Levesque Elementary School during a workshop . 

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.

The committee meeting began with an abnormally low turnout with 11 of the 17 members in attendance. The committee broke off into small groups after committee member Lester Ouellette moved to eliminate the matrix and only focus on size and location of the school. The motion died without a second from any committee member. 

The matrix is used like a grading rubric to assess the proposed sites. The committee had planned to revamp the matrix in July, but the matter was tabled. As the sites are narrowed down to two — one near the St. John Valley Tech Center and the other in Fort Kent near Kent Firewood, the committee broke off into small assigned groups to consider each item in the matrix assigned to that group. 

At the conclusion of the small group discussions, each group presented recommendations for their assigned matrix items. Out of the 26 items, 12 remained the same, nine were adjusted, and five were removed. 

Some of the adjustments changed wording such as in item 1, which is community identity and vitality, where the committee agreed to change the wording from “municipal service area” to “municipal service center area.” 

Other adjustments included the elimination of parts of each item such as removing a portion of the adjacent land use item, which removed three parts including the criteria to be adjacent to civic uses such as police, fire, library or post office. The committee agreed on that specific elimination because it was redundant to items 5, 6, 7 and 8 — sections reserved for fire, police, ambulance, and library/daycare/other services, which were not changed in any way following presentations from surrounding emergency departments. 

Another hot-button issue plaguing the process is the topic of student transportation. During the meeting, the final group to speak recommended that student transportation be changed from being measured by weighted travel time to being measured using  measuring the distance in miles.

The Department of Education funds transportation for the schools based on the mileage the buses travel backdated by two years. The argument for changing it from weighted travel time to distance included the possibility of snow storms, traffic and other factors not in the control of the driver, that could skew the weighted travel time estimate. The engineer firm, WBRC, said it would come up with another matrix item to make up for travel time. 

The matrix items eliminated dropped the 26-point matrix system down to 21 items. The items eliminated include arterial, speed limits, traffic sitelines, public transportation, and airport/train criteria. 

The committee was also scheduled to hear from the transportation director of Valley Unified, however the meeting ran almost 30 minutes over just with the committee’s reworking of the matrix. 


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