EAST MILLINOCKET, Maine — The school system’s enrollment has fallen 55 percent since 1995. Another significant drop-off is expected in three years, which is about when Schenck High School will need close to $4 million in repairs, Superintendent Quenten Clark says.
All of this raises a question, Clark said: Is it time to start considering closing the high school and sending the students of AOS 66 to other places?
“Frankly, the community has a choice,” Clark said Thursday. “We can keep Schenck here, but we have to invest considerably more in the school — and expect to pay more to educate our children once that is done.”
Closing Schenck “is nothing anybody would wish for,” Clark added, “but there’s not a lot that anybody can see to do about it. Everybody who sees the numbers comes to the same conclusion.”
Clark has issued his warning as school officials prepared a zero-growth budget for the 2012-13 school year that they hope to present to the Great Northern School System’s board of directors, which serves East Millinocket, Medway and Woodville, in about three weeks.
The timing is right, Clark said. No decisions need to be made immediately, but residents who start pondering the question now won’t have to rush to make decisions during the 2014-15 school year. That’s when old sections of the high school’s roof — and possibly its boiler system — likely will need significant repairs and when school officials expect to see a vast drop in the area’s birth rate begin to have an effect on the schools, Clark said.
An engineering firm’s 2010 structural survey of Schenck found an estimated $7.9 million in repairs needed, though Clark estimated that the school could do without half that work.
“Next year looks like it will be a pretty normal year,” Clark said, “but when we get beyond that, and every year we get beyond that, we will probably have a lot fewer kids.”
As of November, Opal Myrick Elementary School, which is now a wing of Schenck, Medway Middle School and Schenck had 430 students, with 17 of those coming from Woodville, 183 from Medway, 227 from East Millinocket, and three from the Unorganized Territory. In 1995, 778 students attended the schools.
The lack of new or increased student enrollment causes several other problems, Clark said. As the number of students drops, the cost of educating them increases and fewer academic and extracurricular offerings become available. The lack of students also decreases state aid to schools, which further increases the burden on AOS 66 taxpayer, Clark said.
“At some point it becomes a question of what kind of quality education you can offer students,” Clark said. “There’s nobody to blame here. It is a culmination of all the things that make a natural resources economy uncompetitive and the kinds of things that have been happening in this area over the last 25 years.”
Clark said he plans to discuss the issue further with the AOS 66 board during this year’s budget process, which ends with the adoption of a new budget that goes into effect on July 1.