EAST MILLINOCKET, Maine ― Two weeks ago, Millinocket school officials started sending a bus into East Millinocket and Medway every day to pick up and drop off students who have permission to attend Millinocket schools.
Last week, Millinocket made an apparently unsolicited proposal to accept all East Millinocket students into its town schools for $1.5 million starting next September.
These occurrences have led AOS 66 Superintendent Quenten Clark to think Millinocket officials are plotting to use East Millinocket and Medway students to offset Millinocket’s declining school enrollments.
“How many times,” Clark said Wednesday, “do you see one community sending a bus into another community trying to steal children away?
“Why else would you do it?” Clark said.
The suggestion might sound humorous, but Clark isn’t kidding. The superintendent of East Millinocket, Medway and Woodville schools said he plans to question the ethics of Millinocket officials’ actions when he meets with state education officials on an unrelated matter next week.
Millinocket Superintendent Kenneth Smith responded to Clark’s concerns with a terse email on Thursday.
“We currently have 13 students attending Millinocket schools on superintendents agreements from East Millinocket and Medway and two international students living in East Millinocket,” Smith wrote. “We are providing transportation services to students enrolled in Millinocket schools. Mr. Clark was informed of this activity prior to the start of transporting.”
Clark said that he has never seen superintendent’s agreement students — students who attend out-of-town schools with his permission — collected by a bus before. Parents of children who attend schools elsewhere usually drive them there, Clark said.
When Smith called Clark about two weeks ago and told him that he would be sending a bus to East Millinocket and Medway, Clark suggested that the bus collect the out-of-town students at Opal Myrick Park, a few blocks from Schenck High School and Opal Myrick Elementary School, which was incorporated into the Schenck building in 2011. Such students typically attend out-of-town schools because of joint custody issues or particular student needs.
Instead, the bus has collected the students in front of Schenck, Clark said.
Clark, who said he has no authority to stop the bus coming into town, called Millinocket’s actions “just a provocation to get more kids to go to Millinocket and drive us a little batty.”
“They are trying to get kids into their schools. From a business point of view it’s understandable,” Clark said.
Clint Linscott, chairman of East Millinocket’s Board of Selectmen, expressed surprise at Clark’s criticism of Millinocket officials. Linscott, who has two Chinese exchange students living with his family and attending Stearns High School in Millinocket, said the bus stops for the students regularly at Opal Myrick Park.
Linscott said he asked Smith for a tuition proposal in response to Clark’s statements about a year ago that Schenck High School might have to close.
“I think we have all asked. I don’t want to get caught without a school,” Linscott said Thursday. “[Fellow Selectman] Mark Scally asked in a meeting for an Option B, which I also assumed would have been tuition.”
“This isn’t the thing everybody wants, but people have asked for it, just so we have numbers,” added Linscott, who said he felt he was acting within his discretion as a selectman. “Medway asked last year and got a response. I think the letter [Smith wrote] is very short and polite.”
Clark said that while he regards it as just “a minor annoyance,” a serious point troubling to all rural Maine school districts lies within his situation.
School systems that send school buses into other towns or offer unsolicited tuition agreements as part of an open competition with one another risk employing tactics that “could be used to destroy schools in a lot of towns” by depleting student populations crucial to a system’s welfare, Clark said.
As in many other areas of rural Maine, Katahdin region schools have suffered a sharp population decline. The region has lost about 50 percent of its school-age population in the last 15 years, Clark said ― one of the reasons Millinocket is among a half-dozen public schools statewide that have begun recruiting international students, mostly from Asia.
The state’s school-age population has suffered an overall decline of about 10 percent in the last six years, officials have said.
“There has been huge competition to draw kids away from one district or another,” Clark said. “At one point [state education officials] pushed back pretty hard against this but now they are more in a school-choice mode.”
Clark briefed the AOS 66 board about the issue during a meeting on Tuesday, wryly referring to “a new bus route in town” that wasn’t overseen by East Millinocket or Medway schools. Board members told him to look into it further.
Clark said he was unsure where in Medway the Millinocket bus stopped.
East Millinocket committee members rejected Millinocket’s tuition proposal on Tuesday, saying it was premature until East Millinocket residents decide what to do with Schenck High School.
The building needs $1.8 million in roof repairs and could use as much as $7 million in renovations, but school leaders believe they might be able to keep the school going, despite the school-age population downturn and an expected drop in state aid, for less money.
Clark is developing cost repair estimates and town leaders will likely put the issue to voters through a referendum. He said Wednesday that he is unaware of any East Millinocket school official seeking a tuition plan from Millinocket.
East Millinocket School Committee member Jennifer Murray, whose two children attend Millinocket schools, thanked Smith for sending the bus. She said the kind gesture saves parents the time and financial drains of self-transportation.
“I have not heard, personally, of any new students going to Stearns because the bus appeared,” said Murray, who said she felt that with its last meeting the board effectively shut down any investigation of tuitioning students elsewhere.
“I am OK with keeping Schenck open if we can afford it, and if that is what the townspeople vote, I will support that 100 percent,” Murray said, “but I fear we have burned a bridge by claiming that Millinocket is trying to, in Quenten’s words, poach our kids.”
“We should have better relations with them than we do, and this does not help,” Murray added.