Millinocket school consolidation hopes fading

By Nick Sambides Jr., BDN Staff
Posted Oct. 20, 2010, at 8:03 p.m.

MILLINOCKET, Maine — Though their efforts to merge their department with another school system continue, Millinocket school leaders say it is becoming apparent their schools are falling into what state officials call a “doughnut hole” that might require exemption from the state school consolidation law.

Union 113 school board Chairman Greg Stanley said Wednesday that officials from the union towns — Millinocket neighbors East Millinocket, Medway and Woodville — will not pursue consolidation with Millinocket at this time.

“What we are doing is looking everything over, having discussions and working on the path forward,” Stanley said Wednesday. “We have our options open. There is a possibility of talks on that [consolidation] in the near future, but right now we are working on creating savings within the union itself.”

Given that Lincoln Lakes region communities already have formed Regional School Unit 67, and Milo and other communities of SAD 41 recently formed an Alternative Organizational Structure with SAD 31, Millinocket schools don’t have many options left, Millinocket School Committee Chairman Thomas Malcolm said.

“We are still partners willing to work with anybody,” Malcolm said earlier this week. “We would love to work with our neighboring towns. I don’t think they have any interest.”

Calls to other districts have generated no great interest, Millinocket Superintendent Kenneth Smith said.

“We have done all we can do to encourage people to sit down,” Smith said.

The situation, Smith and Malcolm say, is becoming critical because although the state has deferred seeking annual penalties under the state consolidation law, that delay won’t be indefinite. According to a letter Smith wrote to Union 113 interim Superintendent Omar Norton and the union’s three town school committee chairmen, $111,533 in penalties on nonconforming school systems was avoided this year.

Millinocket, Smith’s letter continues, will face penalties starting with the 2011-12 school year and faces declining enrollment that might force the elimination of “some very worthwhile programs.” The Aug. 11 letter invited the three towns to meet with Millinocket officials in September to discuss consolidation.

In response to and at the direction of the Union 113 board, Norton responded with a letter that rejected the offer, expressed a desire to continue sharing education programs between the union and Millinocket and asked “that any further correspondence from you be directed to [the] Union 113 interim superintendent and the Union 113 board chairperson, Greg Stanley, not the board chairs of each town.”

A previous consolidation referendum and direct statements from Union 113 board members, and possibly from Norton himself, made it abundantly clear before Smith wrote his letter that Union 113 leaders and residents are not interested in pursuing consolidation with Millinocket, Stanley said.

And clearly, Union 113 is not the only school unit whose leaders feel that way, said Stanley, who was not pleased that Millinocket leaders continue to press the subject.

“Just because we don’t agree with you doesn’t mean we’re wrong,” Stanley said. “We don’t agree with consolidating with them, and they think that we are wrong about it.”

Privately, Union 113 board members have said the occasionally bitter relationships among Millinocket school board members make them leery of pursuing consolidation with Millinocket.

Millinocket school leaders continue to seek consolidation to comply with the state law and avoid the penalties. Union 113 members also have expressed concerns about Millinocket school finances. Millinocket leaders have described the town’s financial situation as sound.

Medway will face an annual penalty of about $32,000; East Millinocket, about $70,000; and Woodville, about $6,000, Stanley said.

According to the “Exceptions from Consolidation” section of the summary of the school reorganization law available at www.maine.gov, the state government website, school units “exercising due diligence with respect to consolidation but experiencing rejection by all other surrounding districts to be included in consolidation will not be penalized if their plan documents efforts to consolidate and the plan includes alternative ways of meeting efficiencies.”

The subheading is titled “Doughnut hole.”

Smith said he wants to hold a meeting with Katahdin-area school and town board leaders and the general public to discuss school consolidation possibilities, sometime soon after he returns from a trip to China. Smith hopes to recruit as many as 200 students to attend Millinocket schools by Sept. 1, 2011. No date has been set for the meeting with leaders.

http://bangordailynews.com/2010/10/20/news/millinocket-school-consolidation-hopes-fading/ printed on August 23, 2014