FORT KENT, Maine — More than 1,000 people packed the Fort Kent Community High School gymnasium Wednesday evening for the third and final nonbinding straw poll vote to gauge public interest in building a new St. John Valley regional high school at a site in Frenchville.
“Take a look around the room — democracy is alive and well in SAD 27,” said Valley Unified executive director and SAD 27 Superintendent Ben Sirois. “For me as superintendent to see this many people concerned and encouraged and whatever the case about education is really, really exciting. You’re here for education. You’re here for your community, and that’s wonderful.”
SAD 27, SAD 33 and the Madawaska School District have joined together to form the Valley Unified Regional Educational Center for the purpose of building a regional school to serve grades seven through 12 in the St. John Valley. Maine Department of Education has authorized funding the Valley Unified effort up to $100 million.
Sirois said that although there is a timeline for completing different stages of the project on a certain schedule, the DOE has said the deadlines could be somewhat flexible as long as the project continues to move forward.
The straw poll question was: “Are you in favor of the Frenchville 3A/3B site as the location for the proposed Valley Unified Regional School?”
The first two straw polls, which took place Tuesday evening in Madawaska and Frenchville, drew hundreds of residents from those school districts as well.
The night began in all three towns with presentations about Valley Unified followed by time for questions and answers from the public prior to voting for or against the proposed site.
Among those who spoke at the meeting in Fort Kent Wednesday was attorney Luke Rossignol of Presque Isle who represents the Valley United Concerned Citizens. VUCC is a group of Fort Kent residents that filed a complaint in Aroostook County Superior Court in Caribou asking a judge to put a temporary stop to the regional school project until the site selection process can be reviewed.
Rossignol asked if, given the division the selection of a site for the proposed high school was creating among communities in the St. John Valley, it would be possible for the site selection process to begin anew.
Sirois said that idea had been discussed among members of the VU board, but board members ultimately decided not to throw away nine months of effort they spent selecting the Frenchville site.
Another resident who said she has several children in the school system expressed concerns that the site selection matrix failed to place more importance on the proximity of the proposed school site to a hospital, police station or ambulance service.
Warren Harvey of Fort Kent asked why the site selection was tasked to a committee rather than to voters.
“Let the people vote what they want throughout all the districts. At that point whoever wins wins. They’re the taxpayers. They’re the ones who are going to foot the bill for all of this,” he said.
Fort Kent resident Rick Douglas, who said he recently moved to Fort Kent and is a first-time homeowner, asked what impact the regional school project would have on local property taxes.
Peter Caron, coordinator of innovative practice and community outreach for Valley Unified, replied that a “comprehensive cost analysis is all part of the next stage of the process.”
During their presentations, WBRC representatives talked about the schools in use already, and what the costs would be to renovate each facility: Fort Kent Community High School, $13.5 million; Madawaska Middle/High School, $18.2 million; Wisdom Middle/High School $18.8 million (replacement cost); and St. John Valley Technology Center, $2 million.
The current Fort Kent Community High School building has many issues that would need to be addressed to bring the school up to code, according to WBRC representative Michael Johanning.
“The building has an age to it — no real surprise with some of the things we found,” he said.
Johanning said the state guideline is 800 square feet per classroom, and the majority of the Fort Kent high school classrooms are not that large. The building also lacks a sprinkler system, and there are issues with rain water infiltration in the lower level of the building. In addition, there are issues with ADA compliance and inadequate exits of evacuation.
However, there are no major structural issues regarding the building, according to Johanning.
A meeting to read the results of the straw polls in the three towns will be held at 6 p.m. Thursday at the St. John Valley Technology Center.
If the project moves forward, there will be two more opportunities for the public to vote — a second straw poll after the design phase of the project and the final full referendum that accepts or refuses the school