HARRINGTON — It took longer than expected to get an answer to the $2 million question in Washington County.
Four school districts — School Administrative District 37, Moosabec Community School District 17, Cherryfield Public Schools and Machias Public Schools — and Washington Academy learned in November 2018 that they were awarded a $2.06 million grant from the Maine Department of Education to purchase and renovate a building for at least four new career and technical education programs.
The programs selected include welding, diesel technology, automotive technology and early childhood occupations.
After a three-hour meeting March 21 at Narraguagus Junior/Senior High School in Harrington, officials from the five schools still had not agreed on a location for the vo-tech programs, putting the grant money in jeopardy.
The decision was not made until after the Machias School Committee met in executive session for about an hour the following Monday, March 25.
Out of more than a dozen sites originally considered, the choice had come down to the former Blueberry Ford dealership in Machias and the site of a former grocery store and Basel’s Bar & Grill in Columbia.
At the March 21 meeting, SAD 37, Moosabec and Cherryfield representatives voted for the Columbia site. Machias and Washington Academy officials said they favored the Machias site.
Moderator Fern Desjardins, a retired superintendent working with the state Department of Education, urged the group not to wait too long to make a decision.
“By next Friday, [March] 29, the Department [of Education] needs to know if you’ve agreed on a site,” she said. “I think time is not on our side. Do we have a situation where no one’s going to bend?”
Chris Lyford, president of Washington Academy’s board of trustees, said March 21 that officials from his school were willing to change their vote in order to reach a consensus. Officials from Cherryfield and Moosabec also expressed a willingness to switch their votes.
SAD 37 officials did not indicate whether they would change their minds, instead urging Machias to do so.
The discussion became heated at times.
“You’re asking all of these people who have a preference to flip,” Everett Grant, a member of SAD 37’s board, told Machias representatives.
Machias officials declined to immediately reconsider, instead opting to discuss the choice with their full board March 25.
“This board is saying they want to meet one more time,” said Machias Superintendent Scott Porter. “Please respect that.”
Some of the approximately 100 people in the audience also urged Machias to change its vote so the project would not die.
“Don’t take this opportunity from us due to your own biases,” said Alexis Fletcher, a junior at Narraguagus. “The arguing has to stop … It’s time that you put the students first.”
“If it comes down to the flip of a coin, this is what you need to do,” said Melissa Hinerman of Machiasport. “Do not lose this for Washington County.”
Machias School Committee Chairwoman Teresa Saddler said Tuesday that she called for Monday night’s meeting to be held in executive session so members could go over all of the information.
The Maine Freedom of Access law allows governing bodies to meet in executive session to discuss issues such as personnel, contract negotiations, student expulsion and litigation. Discussions about real estate purchases also can be held behind closed doors “only if premature disclosures of the information would prejudice the competitive or bargaining position of the body of agency,” the statute reads.
When asked why the meeting was not held in public, Saddler said, “I don’t know the answer to that question.”
After the executive session, committee members reconvened in open session and voted unanimously and without comment for the Columbia location.
Fern Desjardins, who moderated the March 21 meeting, said the state requires that all five schools show in meeting minutes that they agree with the chosen site. Because Machias administers vo-tech funds in Washington County, it also would have to show it supports the four programs. Saddler said that was done during Monday night’s closed session.
Both Saddler and Porter said Machias officials strongly preferred the Blueberry Ford site but did not want to risk losing the grant.
“It was a decision that was very, very difficult,” Porter said. “In the end, the Machias School Committee and the Machias selectmen were committed to this grant. They didn’t want to lose this grant.”
“We need these programs for these kids and [the Columbia site is] where it has to go,” Saddler said.
Porter said he felt positive because the grant will double the number of vo-tech programs available to Washington County students.
“And that’s a really good thing,” he said.
SAD 37 Superintendent Ronald Ramsay said Tuesday he was pleased to learn of Machias’s decision.
“We’re very pleased to be able to move forward with the project for all the kids in Washington County,” he said. “I hope we can put all the rest of it behind us.”