EAST MILLINOCKET, Maine — School leaders hope to start a dialogue with the Great Northern School system towns beginning Monday over whether to close the town’s two public schools or see the town’s mill rate rise four to eight mills over the next several years.
The East Millinocket School Committee will meet with the Board of Selectmen at 6 p.m. Monday at Schenck High School to discuss extensive repairs needed to the high school, which also houses Opal Myrick School, AOS 66 Superintendent Quenten Clark said. The building renovations are among several expenses the district has to face, he said.
“The building needs millions of dollars of work,” Clark said Friday. “The board and I will try to meet with the selectmen to see where the community wants to go with this. There are some substantial capital expenses we are looking at.
“If I have a goal, and if the school board has a goal, it is not to produce a particular income,” Clark added. “It is to inform the community as to what the possibilities are.”
The discussion could continue at the AOS 66 school board meeting at Schenck at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Clark said. That’s when the board, which serves East Millinocket, Medway and Woodville, is expected to accept the resignation of Schenck Principal John Farrington after decades of service.
Farrington had taken his retirement years before and returned to the school and is paid a salary that makes him one of the lowest-paid high school principals in the state, Clark said. Clark, who lauded Farrington for his dedication and service, called paying the next principal a better salary one of the added expenses the district needs to face.
The Board of Selectmen of Medway, home to the district’s Medway Middle School, is expected to meet with that town’s school committee in a few weeks to deal with the Schenck question and its own school issues, said Clark, who serves those boards as part of his duties with the AOS.
In addition to leaks and sags in the 75 percent of the roof that dates to the building’s construction in 1957, Schenck has a vintage air-handling system and boiler that need replacement, among other repairs, Clark said.
Just repairing the roof will cost town taxpayers an estimated $1.7 million. If the Maine Department of Education reimburses part of the cost, the job will cost about $1 million, said Clark, who first raised the issue of school closure in Feb 2012.
At that time, Clark estimated the school’s total repairs to cost about $4 million.
In the last two decades, the Katahdin region has seen declining population, school enrollment, state aid and tax funds drawn from regional economic development despite the restart of the town’s single largest taxpayer, the Main Street paper mill, which employs about 360 workers, in 2011, Clark said.
That mill’s property tax rate is essentially frozen for years as part of the deal town leaders made to help get it restarted, though town officials can discuss with company officials possibly increasing taxes, he said.
It costs about $8,000 per student to educate students in the Katahdin region, and tuition the town pays to educate students at Medway Middle School are likely to increase this year as well, Clark said.
Bonding for the roof job alone would cost about $85,000 annually, or about a mill, over 20 years, Clark said, and the downward trend in population, school aid and enrollments is expected to continue for the next several years.
“The other thing that tends to be overlooked is that the building has been here for over 50 years, and it is tired,” Clark said.
Ultimately, the decision to keep the school open or closed will reside with residents. Clark said he hoped a referendum would decide the roof repair question.
He urged residents to start considering how much money they want to pay to keep their schools open and promised to have a clearer picture of those projected costs at Monday’s meeting.
“Do you have to do something today? No,” Clark said, “but if you keep putting off repairing the building … I’m trying to get the communities to the point where they can make a rational decision about whether they want to pay more for the schools or not.
“The reality is that they should have been having this conversation 10 years ago,” he added.