MILLINOCKET, Maine — With some concerns that its details are fuzzy, school leaders voted 3-1 on Tuesday to continue their plan to bring Chinese tuition students to Stearns High School in part to offset expected cuts in next year’s school budget.
The Millinocket School Committee began discussing the idea last spring, thinking that its benefits would be more scholastic than financial, but that was before anybody knew that shrinking state aid and the possibility of paper mill tax breaks would create massive school funding cuts, member Thomas Malcolm said.
“Now,” Malcolm told the 75 people at Tuesday’s meeting, “it’s about the money. We need to find a revenue source.”
With Chairman Arnold Hopkins opposing, the 3-1 vote stipulated that 60 Chinese students would attend Stearns in September and be housed locally, probably at a town hotel the system would lease for two years.
The vote was the board’s first reaffirmation of its commitment to Superintendent Ken Smith’s plan, though the matter has been discussed several times.
Under Smith’s plan, the system would get $24,000 in tuition per student, or $1.4 million from 60 students — enough to cover the program’s expenses and offset the approximately $500,000 in tax breaks being sought on behalf of the Katahdin Avenue paper mill.
Hopkins said he found aspects of the plan vague and some of its predicted financial requirements unrealistic. He feared that such a large Chinese contingent would swamp the school.
Saying he supported the program, Hopkins said that school leaders should solidify its details, hold a November referendum to ensure town support, enroll only 30 Chinese in a pilot program in September 2012 and review the program a year later.
“I am not sure I am comfortable with what I am seeing here,” Hopkins said. “Every single person I talk to tells me that you have to start out at a lower number. Sixty is an overwhelming number of students until you gain some experience dealing with the students.
“It will take a lot of work with administrators [and staff], to develop lesson plans and the ambiance and decor of the school,” Hopkins said. “We are committing people to an expensive, extensive program. We have no right to do that without input from the community itself.”
Some of the projected numbers, such as $16,000 for hotel maintenance costs paid to school workers and $30,000 to a couple that would live in the hotel for free and watch the students, probably were set too low, Hopkins said.
“I don’t think we’re going to profit here no matter what program we do,” he said.
Committee member Kevin Gregory was concerned that the students’ commitments are reliable and that too many in one grade would overwhelm town students.
Of the 60, Smith said, 10 will be seniors, with the rest spread through the lower grades.
“We can do all kinds of things with different [school] configurations,” Smith said.
Stearns has a capacity for 800 students and now handles fewer than 200, he said.
Board members agreed that the plan needed more work but said they simply could not afford to wait a year on the plan.
The committee already has cut about $559,000 from its proposed budget to conform to an expected loss in state funding next year, one of a series of dispiriting budget cuts over the last decade, members said.
“My feelings are that if we don’t do this, we might not have a school,” Gregory said. “We are going to get to a point where we’re not going to be able to cut any more.”