Millinocket faces battle over a school’s future

Posted May 10, 2009, at 9:45 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 12:19 p.m.

MILLINOCKET, Maine — The school board will assess the costs of running Granite Street School in response to some Town Council members urging that the school be closed and all town students moved to Stearns High School, board Chairman Thomas Malcolm said Saturday.

Both sides agree the request is likely the leading edge of a larger debate surrounding the town’s dramatically altered economic situation.

With the Katahdin Paper Co. LLC mill — the town’s largest employer — shut down for at least another year, the town’s population expected to decline with the 2010 Census and tax revenues expected to drop, municipal government and schools must change, council Chairman Wallace Paul said.

School board members “have to get a vision in their heads of a smaller school system in a smaller town, and they don’t seem to have it yet,” Paul said Saturday.

Councilor Scott Gonya likes the idea of closing Granite Street School and putting all town pupils and students into one building, Stearns High School, but school board members don’t.

“They don’t have the will to do it so they keep coming up with reasons it can’t happen,” Gonya said. “So they are just ignoring us. I haven’t ever seen so many people with their heads in the sand.”

School board members see the town’s financial situation, Malcolm said, but balk at rushing into the closing of a school.

“We will look at doing something with our schools as far as a long-range plan, but we don’t intend to close the school immediately,” Malcolm said. “The board is unanimously against closing any school.”

No one has any solid numbers on how much could be saved by closing a school, Malcolm said, and even if it proved financially attractive, it would be educationally problematic.

“We don’t see any major cost savings in doing it, and we have an excellent elementary school in Granite Street,” Malcolm said. “You have to look at your educational values as well. There is quite a difference between elementary and high schools.

“There are a lot of things you have to consider before you do it,” he added. “When you do it, you want to make sure you do it right.”

Councilor Michael Madore, a special education technician at Millinocket Middle School, agreed with Malcolm, calling the school consolidation “not financially feasible right now.” A new addition on Stearns to house all students, he said, would cost $2 million to $4 million to build, and the town still owes about $1 million on Granite Street for its renovation years ago.

“It’s a moot point,” Madore said Sunday. “You won’t save a penny and it won’t return on its investment for about 20 years.”

Louis DiFederico, the schools’ facilities manager, will break down costs associated with the school’s maintenance and physical-plant operations, probably at the board’s first June meeting, Malcolm said.

School officials will study Stearns’ utility as a K-12 school, but probably will need to hire an educational consultant, Malcolm said.

“If we are going to do this, I want figures. I want to know exactly what it does cost,” he said. “You can hear any kind of figure, from $100,000 to $300,000, but let’s find out and bring it back to the board.”

The council-board debate likely will branch to other areas, such as fuel and maintenance costs, union contracts and school management, the start of the new fiscal year on July 1 nears.

Debate on both sides might be tempered by two things, at least this year: the council’s having no direct power over school operations, just the school system’s budget, and the loss of tax revenue from Katahdin paper not occurring until the 2010-11 fiscal year, Malcolm and Paul said.

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