EAST MILLINOCKET, Maine — They are under no legal obligation to do it, but town leaders will hold a special town meeting within two weeks to see whether voters would overturn the school committee’s decision to close Opal Myrick School.
Under state law, Union 113 Superintendent Quentin Clark said, residents can petition to keep the school open. If a petition effort works, deadlines legally imposed by it could impair the creation of 2011-12 school and municipal budgets and town leaders’ ability to conclude property tax negotiations with Meriturn Partners, a San Francisco-based investor that seeks to buy the Main Street paper mill and another mill in Millinocket for $1 by April 29.
If the sale collapses, mill owner Brookfield Asset Management of Toronto has said it will close the mill, the town’s largest single taxpayer, by April 22. About 450 workers would be laid off.
School board votes to close schools “are typically final” but “what happens at the mill matters,” Clark said Thursday.
“We have a budget timeline and a mill crisis timeline. The whole thing is about timing. If we didn’t start the ball rolling now, we would not be in position to do a budget or all of the things we have to do as we get into June,” he added.
No town meeting date has been set. Clark said he plans to contact the Board of Selectmen and town Administrative Assistant Shirley Tapley within a few days.
Committee members voted 5-0 on Wednesday to save at least $106,000 by closing Opal Myrick School and transferring its kindergarten through fourth-grade pupils to Schenck High School in September in anticipation of the loss of about $1 million in tax revenue caused by a mill sale or shutdown.
The high school would be remodeled to accommodate the pupils and school leaders would work to limit but not eliminate mingling of the young pupils with the older students. Medway Middle School will remain open to accommodate town middle-schoolers and allow educators to avoid mingling middle- and high-schoolers.
The possible mill sale and the property tax negotiations between Meriturn and town officials leave school leaders in an odd position, Clark said.
“I’ve never done a budget before without having any idea what the tax base was,” Clark said.
The property tax deal is not complete and both sides have declined to discuss details of a counteroffer East Millinocket and Millinocket officials made last week. However, estimates on Meriturn’s initial proposal to East Millinocket, of a $22 million tax break over 10 years, would have caused a cut in school funding of about $1 million starting July 1, officials have said.
Clark said he anticipates being forced by the revenue loss to lay off several teachers and to cut several programs. He already has issued two layoff warnings, to a physical education teacher and a reading tutor, and cut several part-time assistant coaching positions. Under the budget he plans to submit, the high school cross country program will be cut, he said.
Clark said he aims to budget $570,000 less than last year.
Clark is still compiling the potential savings of closing the elementary school and continues to examine areas where other cuts could occur.
“What it comes down to is that when all of this shakes down, how big a problem do we have? I don’t want to give up any staff or programs,” Clark said.