EAST MILLINOCKET, Maine — As a graduate of the Schenck High School Class of 1974 and a school board member from 1989 to 2003, Don Hendsbee doesn’t want to see the high school close.
But when he contemplates the Katahdin region’s shrinking population, declining birth rates and the “fragile shape” the town’s paper mill is in, Hendsbee said he is willing to consider it.
“There are a lot of people who haven’t come to these meetings who feel exactly the way that I do,” Hendsbee told the East Millinocket School Committee on Tuesday. “I haven’t heard anybody say they support keeping Schenck open.”
“I think we have to have a safety net [plan that considers] looking elsewhere,” he added.
Committee members voted 4-1 during the special meeting to allow voters to decide during a spring referendum whether to repair the high school’s roof and install a new gym floor for $2.1 million. Committee member Jennifer Murray opposed. About 45 people attended the meeting.
Hendsbee and other residents pressed the board to consider sending town students to another school to defray what could be a heavy tax load and multiyear loans that would come with repairing and renovating Schenck.
Committee Chairman Dan Byron promised that alternative cost scenarios and supporting information — if not alternative votes — would be available at the referendum.
Clint Linscott, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, promised estimates of the impacts of the various scenarios on the town’s tax rates prior to the vote.
AOS 66 school Superintendent Quenten Clark said the referendum would probably occur in April. No date has been set.
Several residents said that with the school system having lost 55 percent of its population since 1995, they did not want to see the school renovated unless town leaders had a backup plan for Schenck’s use.
“We need some sort of plan for when enrollment does decline. What are we going to use the building for? We have to ensure that our investment is still good,” resident Linda Osborne said.
The committee discussed the proposal dated Monday from Lewis & Malm Architecture of Bucksport that include two sets of repairs for Schenck. One repair package would cost $2.1 million, and will be decided by the referendum.
The $2.1 million option includes installing R-38 roof insulation, a new gymnasium floor, new emergency and exit lights and audio-visual fire alarms, plus repairing gym wall cracks and remodeling bathrooms and drinking fountains to meet the requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act, according to the proposal.
The Maine Department of Education will pay about $636,000 of the $2.1 million, Clark said.
The Schenck building, which houses Opal Myrick Elementary School and serves the AOS 66 towns of East Millinocket, Medway and Woodville, cannot be saved without the roof repair, Clark said.
“If you vote no on the roof, you are voting no on the school. Article 1 has to happen,” Clark said.
The other three options outlined by Lewis & Malm carry costs of $1.2 million to $1.9 million. They would probably not have to occur for several years. Any plan to tuition students elsewhere would not go into effect for two or three years, Clark said.
School leaders from Lee Academy and RSU 67, which includes Mattanawcook Academy of Lincoln, expressed willingness on Tuesday to offer tuition proposals to AOS 66, Clark said.
Board members rejected as premature last week a proposal from Millinocket school officials to accept students there for $1.5 million. They said they wanted to consider all tuition possibilities.
Any plan must be long-ranging and realistic, Hendsbee said.
“We need to look at a different scenario for the whole area,” Hendsbee said. “We will be here again and we will be in the same situation. We’ve got to start thinking out of the box.”