Superintendent: China plan could avert school layoffs in Millinocket

Posted March 25, 2011, at 8:05 p.m.
Last modified March 30, 2011, at 8:53 a.m.

MILLINOCKET, Maine — Layoffs like those proposed in East Millinocket in response to paper mill revitalization efforts will not occur in Millinocket if school leaders adopt a plan to enroll as many as 60 Chinese students at Stearns High School in September.

“It will help to stave off the vast majority [of possible cuts]. It won’t do everything, but it will make a significant difference,” school Superintendent Kenneth Smith said Friday of his proposal, which he plans to present to the Millinocket school committee Tuesday.

Smith has enrollment guarantees from 30 Chinese students and hopes to have 30 more on Monday, he said.

Committee Chairman Arnold Hopkins said he thought it was premature of Smith to raise the possibility of layoffs or the implementation of the international student plan until the board can review his budget and the plan.

“Nothing has been decided on the cuts [to the school budget] and nothing has been decided on the international student plan,” said Hopkins, who believes the China plan will be implemented “but it may be modified greatly.”

The idea, which school leaders first discussed last spring, has flowered into a plan that Smith said would earn the school system $24,000 tuition per student, or $1.4 million from 60 students. That would be enough to cover the program’s expenses and offset the approximately $500,000 in tax breaks being sought by the current owner and a potential owner of the Katahdin Avenue paper mill.

Town officials are negotiating a counteroffer to Meriturn Partners LLC, a San Francisco investor that seeks to buy the mill and the East Millinocket mill for $1 by April 29. The original proposal sought a decrease on the Katahdin Avenue mill’s property tax from $2.6 million to about $50,000.

In addition, the current owner, Katahdin Paper Co., has filed taxable valuation reduction requests on the mill that the town estimates would create a $1.15 million tax loss, Millinocket Town Manager Eugene Conlogue said Thursday.

Facing approximately the same dilemma with efforts to revitalize their town’s mill, East Millinocket school officials voted Wednesday to close Opal Myrick School and have warned of two layoffs and several program cuts. More layoffs are likely, school officials said. East Millinocket voters will decide on whether close the school within two weeks.

The  China plan “is our only salvation” from having to make similar cuts, Smith said, though he did not mention any potential school closings in Millinocket.

Smith made national headlines in September when he announced that school officials hoped to enroll as many as 200 tuition-paying students, most from the Far East, by next September and house them locally, possibly in dormitories not yet built.

He met with architects and toured local buildings in search of potential dormitory space. In October he visited China, where he established liaisons with eight Chinese schools.

Smith also secured an agreement with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to allow Chinese students to attend Stearns for a year. He also has an agreement with Lee Academy under which Lee would accept those students after their year in Millinocket. Lee also would accept Millinocket students into its Advanced Placement classes.

Yet Tuesday’s meeting will be the first, Hopkins said, at which the board will vote on whether to proceed with the international program, though it has been discussed several times, including at a public hearing Jan. 22, and generally affirmed by committee members and residents.

Named chairman in November, Hopkins was the sole committee member at the hearing to speak against the plan. He listed several potential problems, including the need for student housing and supervision, adverse effects upon school test scores and the need for large amounts of front money, and also several positives.

“This could be an unmitigated disaster if we don’t do it right,” he said at the January hearing. After that meeting, he said he feared that 200 students would overwhelm the culture of the school and the community.

On Friday, Hopkins said he still believes that the school culture and students could find a large influx of Chinese students overwhelming, and he has concerns about whether the school can accommodate 100 to 200 Chinese students.

“I need to see whether we have the [front] money to accomplish this,” Hopkins said. “It is going to be discussed.”

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