St. John Valley

The top news stories of 2019 in northern Aroostook

Editor’s Note: The following is the second of two articles highlighting some of the top news stories from 2019. This article highlights events from July through December. Highlights from January through June were published Dec. 25.

 

July

Madawaska residents approved a $6.1 million municipal budget at the annual town meeting at Madawaska Middle High School. The town approved a municipal budget of $6,110,334 and a pollution control budget of $843,027, according to Town Manager Gary Picard. The municipal budget, which was up by less than $100,000, most likely increased due to the nearly $200,000 increase in debt service funding created by a new road repair and paving project. The paving project would begin in 2019 and end in 2020. Picard said while the budgets for the town, school and county have increased since last year, revenues also have increased to “offset much of the increases.” 

A total of eight community members sit in the audience of the Valley Unified information session in Madawaska July 9. (Morgan Mitchell | SJVT)

The Site Selection Committee for the new Valley Unified school facility decreased the number of proposed sites to six during its meeting held July 16 at Madawaska Middle High School Library. Three remaining sites in Madawaska, which were eliminated based on several reasons, including weighted travel time and site size.

Thanks to an $1,800 grant composed of funds from people who chose to donate money from their tax refunds, the Long Lake Public Library was able to continue programs for children in the area. The money is collected to help libraries throughout Maine, according to librarian Jenna St. Onge, and each library can apply for the grant every two years. St. Onge said she heard about the grant through the Maine State Library, and while they had never applied for the grant before, they wanted to give it a shot. 

On his first official day as University of Maine System chancellor, former Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy visited the system’s northernmost campus to punctuate his plans to ask the UMS Board of Trustees to approve a presidential search for University of Maine at Fort Kent. Interim President Tex Boggs welcomed Malloy to the campus. Boggs was appointed interim president and provost earlier in the year after President John Short announced his retirement. Chancellor Malloy said he hoped his news of a presidential search would help “stop the rumors that somebody has expectations of closing this campus or closing other campuses.”

Voters overwhelmingly approved the latest proposed 2019-2020 SAD 27 school budget during a meeting at Fort Kent Community High School.

Superintendent Ben Sirois presented to an audience of more than 100 community members a revised budget with $190,097 worth of cuts district officials made to the previously proposed 2019-2020 budget that failed to pass at a June referendum vote.

August

The Valley Unified Education Service Center Board of Directors voted unanimously that a proposed regional school in the St. John Valley should include middle school students in grades seven and eight. The public meeting was held Tuesday, July 30, in Madawaska. The new school will be considered a grades seven-16 school because it will provide opportunities for high school-aged students to earn college credits by the time they graduate.

Valley Unified bus drivers Ricky Labbe (right) and Corey Morin took first and second place, respectively, in the Maine Association for Pupil Transportation 2019 Driving Skills Competition. (Jessica Potila | SJVT)

The two most skilled school bus drivers in Maine transport children right here in the St. John Valley, according to the results of the Maine Association for Pupil Transportation 2019 Driving Skills Competition. Valley Unified bus drivers Ricky Labbe and Corey Morin placed first and second place, respectively, in the state competition, which saw around 30 of Maine’s top bus drivers go wheel to wheel as they competed in six categories.

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 its official stance regarding the straw poll and voting process for the proposed regional high school.

The town of Fort Kent made history, yet again, while celebrating the history of its 150th year as a town as hundreds of volunteers and thousands of spectators turned out to events during a weeklong celebration Aug. 4-10. Fort Kent was incorporated as a town in 1869. A parade with more than 100 entries, and which was more than 2.5 miles long, summed up the spirit of the “Little Town That Could” on Saturday morning.

Hundreds of people showed up at Bicentennial Park Thursday, Aug. 15, for Acadian Day to celebrate Acadian heritage. (Morgan Mitchell | SJVT)

Thousands of people from near and far gathered in Madawaska to enjoy the multitude of festivities the 42nd annual Acadian Festival and Madawaska’s 150th Anniversary had to offer over the weekend of Aug. 15-18. Complete with two parades, a poutine eating contest, a craft fair and a quilt festival, this once-a-year event was the biggest success this town had seen yet.

A project five years in the making to help protect the town of Fort Kent from future flooding saw more than 50 community members celebrate its completion at a ribbon cutting ceremony near the Fort Kent Blockhouse. A project to expand the levee on the St. John River to the Fish River Bridge began in 2014 with funding coming from FEMA, Northern Border Regional Commission, a Community Development Block Grant and local funding.

A Madawaska store employee notified police after finding a suspicious bag on a shelf in the toy aisle of the store. The bag contained a  crystalline substance which police determined to be methamphetamine hydrochloride, a drug commonly referred to as “meth.” The bag containing the meth was decorated with smiley faces and was located on a lower shelf of the toy aisle, within easy reach of children, according to Madawaska Police Chief Ross Dubois. 

A man who police say pretended to be unconscious because he was behind on his rent found this was likely not the best plan to avoid his landlord. The owner of a Main Street apartment called police when he found his tenant, Ted Zarins, unresponsive in the apartment. The landlord called for assistance and when police arrived, they found Zarins conscious and responsive and not in need of medical assistance. The officers also discovered there was an outstanding warrant for Zarins, who allegedly failed to appear in court with regard to a criminal threatening charge.

September

Two more sites were eliminated from the list of possible sites for the proposed regional high school during the Valley Unified Educational Service Center’s Site Selection Committee meeting at Fort Kent Community High School. The committee then voted unanimously to continue considering the remaining two sites — one in Frenchville and the other in Fort Kent.

A group of senior citizens from Ridgewood Estates donated a box full of school supplies to the Madawaska Elementary School Sept. 5 in honor of the first day of school and to help those in need of a little help. The seniors call themselves the 90s Club because each member is in their 90s but remains active in the community by volunteering. They do four special volunteer pushes throughout the year. The 90s Club dropped off a box full of notebooks, crayons, colored pencils and more.

Girl Scout Troop 83 in Fort Kent decorated trash cans at Riverside Park as part of a take action project. Front, from left: Tenley Marquis, Annie Kelly, Jaylynn Kirk, Charlotte Grange and Persephone Kilcollins. Back, from left: Rosie Jandreau, Cassidy McBreairty, Grace Doustou, Kaylen Theriault, Nicole Daigle, and Sophia Anoushfar. (Courtesy of Bettina Grange)

Members of Girl Scout Troop 83 in Fort Kent are hoping more people will use the trash cans at Riverside Park now that the girls painted them as part of a scouting project. “They talked it over at a meeting, and thought that if they decorated some trash cans at the park in a fun and colorful way, they would be more noticeable, and people might be inclined to use them more rather than litter,” said troop leader Bettina Grange. 

A St. Francis man woke up just in time to escape a fire that consumed his home which is attached to the St. Francis Post Office. Mike Abbott owns the building, the front portion of which the United States Postal Service rents. Abbott fled from the building and was then nearly struck by a live electric wire that fell to the ground as he was making his escape, according to St. Francis Fire Chief Gerald Jandreau. Police arrested Stuart McBreairty, 43, of St. Francis and charged him with arson in connection with the fire. 

October

Emergency response organizations weighed in at a meeting of the Valley Unified Educational Service Center Site Selection Committee on Tuesday, Sept. 24, about their ability to service the two possible sites for a proposed regional grades seven-12 school in the St. John Valley. The Site Selection Committee, tasked with finding a suitable location for the proposed school, has narrowed down 46 sites to one in Frenchville next to the St. John Valley Tech Center, and the other in Fort Kent near Northern Maine Medical Center. Representatives of the Aroostook County Sheriff’s Office, Maine State Police, Fort Kent Police Department and Madawaska Police Department addressed questions from the committee about the response times to answer calls at each of the remaining two sites.

The Valley Unified Site Selection Committee revamped the matrix used to help it choose a site for the proposed regional high school at its Oct. 8 meeting at Dr. Levesque Elementary School. The committee meeting began with an abnormally low turnout of members with 11 of the 17 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.

Two men caught on a security camera stealing a rubber chicken from a school donated $1,000 to the Madawaska Middle High School instead of facing charges in court. In July, one of the school custodians found a bite taken out of his apple and confronted his coworker about the deed. Paul Chasse, director of school facilities, safety, operations and maintenance, found the two bickering and said he would help them solve the issue by looking back through security camera footage. While reviewing the footage, Chasse saw that two men had apparently broken into the Madawaska Middle High School, and took only one item —a rubber chicken.

A misprint in documents shared with the Site Selection Committee for Valley Unified led a few committee members and the media to believe the property lots included in proposed site 43 in Fort Kent housed businesses and buildings. Information released earlier by the engineering firm WBRC, which is evaluating the proposed sites for the Site Selection Committee, indicated that property occupied by two businesses and some other unconnected lots were under consideration. That information was not correct. Rather the lot numbers for site 43 in Fort Kent are map 6, lots 13-2, 13-7, 13-8, 13-9, 13-10, 13- 11 and 13-13.

This award winning decorative display at Northern Maine Medical Center in Fort Kent caught fire on Thursday morning, Oct. 17. (Courtesy of Dona Saucier)

A decorative display at a Fort Kent hospital went up in flames but community members — including the hospital’s CEO — extinguished the fire before it could cause any real damage. Two Daigle Oil Company employees happened to be driving by Northern Maine Medical Center when they noticed decorations including a giant black spider, scarecrow and bale of hay were on fire atop the roof of the hospital’s front entrance. 

The display had won first place in the Greater Fort Kent Area Chamber of Commerce Scarecrow Festival better business decorating contest. 

Law enforcement personnel from three different agencies educated students at Fort Kent Community High School on Tuesday morning about what steps the students could take should they find themselves in an active shooter or aggressive intruder situation. The training was provided by ALICE-certified officers Sgt. Joshua Haines and Trooper Andrew Levesque of the Maine State Police, Sgt. Matt Cummings of the Aroostook County Sheriff’s Office and Madawaska Police Department Lt. Jamie Pelletier, a school resource officer for the Madawaska School Department. ALICE, which stands for alert, lockdown, inform, counter and evacuate, is a strategic training program designed to equip individuals with the skills they would need to use if ever an active shooter or aggressive intruder were in the building or on school grounds.

November

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.

The SAD 27 board of directors will seek legal advice about the process that resulted in Frenchville being chosen as the site for a state-funded regional grades seven-12 school in the St. John Valley, which could stall the multi-year project. The SAD 27 board voted unanimously Wednesday to appoint a sub-committee to recommend a lawyer to look into it. 

The Madawaska Police Department has a new sergeant after it promoted Garrett Albert to the position on Friday, Nov. 15, at the Madawaska town office. A vacancy earlier this winter left the department short a leader. After rounds of tests and interviews, the department selected Garrett Albert to assist in leading the officers in Madawaska. 

Despite sleet and freezing rain that prompted a National Weather Service warning and resulted in after-school activities being canceled during the evening of one performance, the musical “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” drew at least 1,000 spectators in Fort Kent. Multiple community members helped director Doug Clapp with the show, including music teacher Samantha Boutot, who served as conductor; Fort Kent Town Manager Suzie Paradis as choreographer; and educator Jocelyn Saucier who stepped into the role of costume coordinator. Educator Samantha O’Clair served as secretary of the production. 

December

Town officials held a public meeting Monday night to try to explain the recent mill rate spike to a crowd of 300 upset residents in Madawaska. The 3 mill increase brings the tax rate from 20.2 to 23.2, which means that a homeowner will pay $23.20 for every $1,000 in property value. A property assessed at $100,000 will cost the homeowner $2,320 in taxes in 2020, which is up $300 on the same property in 2019. The board had set the new tax rate at its Nov. 12 meeting.

A group of residents led by Aaron Cyr called Monday night for the resignation of two of the town’s top administrators, including the town manager and a selectman, and the suspension of the financial director/assistant town manager. The demand came during a public session in which Town Manager Gary Picard and the Board of Selectmen were explaining to an unhappy audience of nearly 300 people why their taxes are going up 3 mills in 2020. The residents specifically named Picard, Board of Selectmen Chairman Don Chasse and financial director/assistant town manager Dana Gendreau. 

Town Manager Gary Picard was emotional Thursday, Dec. 12, when Chairman Don Chasse read a statement “as a citizen” in which he defended the town manager and finance director and “denounced cyber bullying.” (Morgan Mitchell | SJVT)

After a petition was filed Thursday morning to remove Madawaska Town Manager Gary Picard from office, the Board of Selectmen voted Thursday night to deny the petition, calling it “not valid and contrary to the law.” The Board of Selectmen held an executive session at the beginning of the meeting to discuss “personnel matters,” then addressed the more than two dozen taxpayers attending regarding the tax rate and the “bullying” of town employees. Acknowledging the hardship the 3 mill tax increase necessary to offset the lower valuation of Twin Rivers Paper Company will cause residents, board Chairman Don Chasse then turned his attention to what he termed a “smear campaign” against Town Manager Gary Picard and Finance Director Dana Gendreau.

At least 350 students from St. John Valley schools were kept home by their parents over a widely shared Facebook post threatening gun violence that authorities determined was an illegitimate threat. More than half the student body at Valley Rivers Middle School/Fort Kent Community High School — 192 out of 380 students — did not attend school Friday, and nearly 40 percent of Fort Kent Elementary School’s 485 students were likewise absent. More than a third of students — 45 out of 138 — were absent from Dr. Levesque Elementary School in Frenchville. It was not immediately clear how many students were absent from Wisdom Middle High School in St. Agatha

The Valley Unified Board of Directors on Tuesday evening ratified the recommendation of the Site Selection Committee to proceed with a Frenchville site for a proposed regional school. The board voted 7-2 for ratification. Two of SAD 27’s three Valley Unified board members, Gary Sibley Jr. and Toby Jandreau, voted against the ratification.

The Fort Kent Community High School gym was alive with positive energy and fun when Josh Drean delivered an anti-bullying presentation to students. Drean is a Harvard University student with a degree in psychology from Brigham Young University who has been featured on NBC Morning News, FOX News and has reached out to more than 100,000 students across the United States and Canada. He has a unique approach to combating bullying through his “Defeat Bullying Positively” presentation. 

School administrators in St. John Valley reviewed safety protocols and building security during a special public meeting held after hundreds of students skipped school over fear of a school shooting. There was no real threat during the mass absences of Dec. 13, but school officials still met with parents the next day to ease fears over the misinformation that had already been publicly discredited. 

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