Superintendent: Valley Unified a worthwhile endeavor even without regional school
FORT KENT, Maine — As the individual school administrative units comprising the Valley Unified Education Service Center ponder how long they will remain in the partnership, executive director Ben Sirois told the Valley Unified board representing them how collaborating benefits them all.
Valley Unified formed in 2018 when SAD 27 (based in Fort Kent), SAD 33 (based in Frenchville) and Madawaska School Department joined forces with the goal of building a new state-funded regional high school in the St. John Valley to address declining enrollment and rising costs in their individual schools.
The Maine State Board of Education voted to remove the St. John Valley project from its list of approved school construction projects last February when the Valley Unified board failed to agree by a state-imposed Dec. 21, 2020, deadline on how to form a regional school unit to govern the partnership.
An interlocal agreement entered into by the three districts in 2018 set the term of the Valley Unified Education Service Center at 25 years, meaning the earliest a member may withdraw from Valley Unified is 2043, and only if all debt obligations to the regional service center have been paid in full. Even then, it would require a two-thirds vote from the remaining members to approve the withdrawal.
At a Jan.12 meeting, representatives of all three SAUs indicated they are amenable to maintaining the Valley Unified partnership, but would like to reduce the term of the arrangement to less than 25 years. The proposed new term of the Valley Unified partnership has yet to be decided.
Sirois, who is also superintendent of the three SAUs, explained at a Monday, Jan. 31, meeting of the Valley Unified board that maintaining the education service center is beneficial despite the regional school’s failure to materialize.
Sirois pointed out that Valley Unified was not created for the sole purpose of a shared regional school, but also holds other strategic priorities aimed at the betterment of the school communities involved.
Shared services are at the heart of why the Valley Unified partnership remains relevant, Sirois said.
The Valley Unified partners share administrative costs for superintendent, assistant superintendent, director of finance, coordinator of innovation and outreach, curriculum director and food services director.
They also share the costs of educators including a half-time French/Acadian integrator, health instructor, career education instructor and alternative learning instructor.
The districts collaborate on grant writing and share office databases, software and technology services.
As an educational service center, Valley Unified receives annual subsidies from the Maine Department of Education. These include more than $76,000 of Superintendent Sirois’ salary and benefits, the full cost of financial software of more than $54,000, PowerSchool software costs reimbursed at $8,000 to $12,000 per district, and a member allocation subsidy of more than $77,000 combined between the districts.
“As each of our districts get smaller, providing additional educational opportunities while maintaining efficiencies will become more challenging,” Sirois said.
Student enrollment in all three districts is on a distinct downward trend, and has been for the past 20 years, Sirois said.
During the 2000-2001 school year, the combined number of students enrolled in the three districts stood at 2,367, with 1,244 enrolled in SAD 27, 776 enrolled in Madawaska School Department and 347 enrolled in SAD 33.
The combined district enrollment has dwindled to 1,464 today, a 38 percent reduction. SAD 27 currently has 821 students enrolled, Madawaska School Department has 404 and SAD 33 has 239.
The projected enrollment for the 2025-2026 school year is 1,272, with all three districts seeing fewer students.
Fewer students means less in state subsidies to fund the schools, the costs of which are passed on to taxpayers in each district, and could result in a loss of staffing, programs and services for the districts, Sirois said.
Cost sharing for Valley Unified is divided among the districts based on student enrollment and community valuation.
For 2022-2023, the cost share is set at 50.8 percent for SAD 27, and divided among the member towns as follows: Fort Kent, 35.6 percent; Wallagrass, 5.7 percent; New Canada, 3.7 percent; St. Francis, 3.5 percent; and St. John Plantation, 2.4 percent.
Madawaska School Department will pay 33.7 percent and SAD 33 will be responsible for 15.5 percent, divided between Frenchville (8.6 percent) and St. Agatha (6.9 percent).
Also at issue is the governance structure of the Valley Unified board, because despite its larger share of the cost, SAD 27 only has a third of the voting power.
The Valley Unified board will revisit the terms of the partnership and possibly revise the interlocal agreement at a March 14 meeting.