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Valley Unified project still possible as partners return to Think Tank

MADAWASKA, Maine — The three St. John Valley school administrative units comprising Valley Unified Regional Service Center will return to a Think Tank process to try and resolve their differences before abandoning the project.

SAD 27, which consists of Fort Kent, St. John Plantation, St. Francis, Wallagrass and New Canada, along with SAD 33, which includes Frenchville and St. Agatha, and the Madawaska School Department entered into an interlocal agreement in 2018 to form Valley Unified with the aim of building a state-funded regional school to address declining enrollment and rising costs in education.

Valley Unified is poised to receive up to $100 million in state funding for construction of the regional school building should the school consolidation process obtain final approval from the Maine Department of Education.

The SAD 27 Board of Directors expressed its intention to withdraw from Valley Unified in an Aug. 26 letter addressed to the other two school units comprising the service center.  

The primary issue cited in the letter has to do with what SAD 27 considers an inequitable distribution of voting power on the Valley Unified board.

Based on a 2018 interlocal agreement entered into by all three school units, SAD 27 holds a third of the votes on the VU board, but is responsible for at least 50 percent of the Valley Unified budget, with that percentage expected to grow in the coming years. The interlocal agreement allows a school unit to withdraw from Valley Unified without complications with a 7-9 vote from the VU board, otherwise there is a dispute resolution process that must be followed.

In letters both dated Sept. 18, SAD 33 and the Madawaska School Department made clear their objections to a potential SAD 27 withdrawal from Valley Unified.

Also in September, Maine Department of Education Commissioner Pender Makin  notified Valley Unified administrators of a Dec. 31 deadline by which the Valley Unified partners must agree to form a Regional School Unit. If they fail to do so, the state will withdraw the potential funding. 

At their respective board meetings, the three school units recently agreed to return to a Think Tank before giving up on the Valley Unified project. 

At a Monday, Oct. 6, meeting of the SAD 33 board, Valley Unified Executive Director and Superintendent Ben Sirois suggested some talking points to help facilitate discussion among representatives of the three school units at the upcoming Think Tank. 

In order to address the SAD 27 concerns about representation on the Valley Unified board, Sirois recommended Valley Unified partners move to a 10 person board representative of the communities themselves rather than the districts. 

Sirois suggested the representation be based on the share of valuation in each school unit, which he said would provide Madawaska with three Valley Unified board representatives, SAD 33 with two, and SAD 27 with five. 

He also suggested that no more than three Valley Unified representatives should be Fort Kent residents. At least two of the SAD 27 members on the Valley Unified board should be residents of one or more of the other SAD 27 towns, according to Sirois’ recommendation. 

Sirois also suggested the Think Tank members try to agree to maintain a Frenchville parcel as the proposed site for the new school. He pointed out that all grant monies provided to support the site selection process have been spent. 

If the school units are unable to come to a consensus at the Think Tank meeting, the next step would be for them to attend a more formal mediation process. 

The Valley Unified Think Tank will meet Wednesday, Oct. 14.

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