Valley Unified Think Tank fails to reach consensus on school site, RSU

FRENCHVILLE, Maine — Representatives for three school administrative units comprising Valley Unified Regional Service Center attended a Think Tank meeting on Wednesday, but failed to reach consensus regarding the site of a proposed new regional school and whether to form an RSU.

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 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.  

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. 

Think Tank members discussed site selection at Wednesday’s meeting. A site selection committee chose a Frenchville parcel as the location for the school. 

But members of the SAD 27 board disputed the fairness of the site selection process and a group of Fort Kent residents in January filed a complaint in Aroostook County Superior Court in Caribou asking a judge to put a temporary stop to the school consolidation process.

The plaintiffs, Valley United Concerned Citizens, through their attorney Luke Rossignol, cited issues with the site selection process, namely that the matrix changed during the process in a way that favored the Frenchville site over one in Fort Kent; that the VU board included administrators from each of the three school administrative units who combined to form Valley Unified; and that several members of the site selection committee felt unduly pressured to vote in favor of the Frenchville site.

The Think Tank members were unable to agree Wednesday whether to keep the Frenchville site or begin a new site selection process, with SAD 33 and Madawaska School Department standing firmly in favor of the selected site. 

Also unresolved was whether the school units would agree to form an RSU, although none of the Think Tank members indicated their boards’ refusal to do so.

The Think Tank members indicated that their respective school boards were open to the idea of inviting outlying towns to join the RSU should the school units decide to form one.

Tuitioning towns surrounding the school units are Allagash, Eagle Lake, Winterville and Grand Isle. 

The school units are also open to considering a new voting distribution 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.

Valley Unified Executive Director and Superintendent Ben Sirois has proposed that Valley Unified partners move to a 10-person board representative of the communities themselves rather than the districts. 

The Think Tank members will discuss with their school board chairpersons whether to hold another Think Tank meeting or move to a more formal dispute resolution process with a mediator.

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