MILLINOCKET, Maine — Tanner McLaughlin had heard enough.
A Stearns High School sophomore, the student representative on the Millinocket school board, scolded his fellow board members and the East Millinocket school board during a meeting on Wednesday night for failing to aggressively pursue consolidating the towns’ two school systems.
“I am kind of appalled at what is going on tonight,” McLaughlin said. “I don’t believe we should [just] continue to consolidate extracurriculars. We need to come together as two schools.
“I give each town five years of separate schools and we are all in the crap chute,” McLaughlin added. “We need to come together. Students like each other. It is the adults that are having the problems. The kids don’t really care.”
McLaughlin told the East Millinocket board that he understood how its members wanted to keep open the Schenck High School building, “but it is not going to happen for much longer, so it is time to not keep putting it on the back burner.”
“We need to start talking about consolidation now because the longer we put it off the less likely it is going to happen,” he said, “but we all know it is going to happen.”
McLaughlin’s comments came about an hour into a meeting in which testy exchanges mingled with pledges to do what’s right for students. The boards of the neighboring Katahdin region towns had by then agreed to put aside their stormy past and further discuss combining sports teams, the continuation of combined show choir and other musical efforts, and, if all goes well, the consolidation of schools.
Millinocket Superintendent Kenneth Smith and East Millinocket Superintendent Quenten Clark agreed to meet to develop joint proposals. No meeting date has been set. The boards will have final approval.
Everything is on the table, Millinocket school board Chairman Kevin Gregory said.
“We have to put the stuff that has happened in the past behind us, not hold grudges,” Gregory said. “Open communication should be a part of that. This may be the first step so if we can get a couple wins, get a couple things going.”
“It is something that can work,” Gregory added.
East Millinocket board members sought the meeting as part of their continuing efforts to determine the future of Schenck, the town’s only active school building, which houses the K-4 Opal Myrick Elementary School.
The board seeks town approval for $1.6 million in repairs to its roof and gym floor. That’s part of what East Millinocket leaders expect to spur a property tax increase from 23.33 mills to 44 mills next year, and a small part of a larger question — whether to close the school and send town students elsewhere, or repair the roof and possibly commit later to paying as much as $7 million in needed building repairs to keep their students in East Millinocket.
During the meeting, East Millinocket school board Chairman Dan Byron sought a commitment from Millinocket board members to send their students to the middle school East Millinocket leaders hope to start in a partly repaired Schenck building in a few years.
Millinocket’s board sought reassurances from East’s board that the town intended to fully repair the building. Byron said his town’s residents wouldn’t agree to pursue consolidation and full repairs of Schenck unless it was part of a long-term plan both sides agreed to.
East residents would have to vote to repair the roof — provided that East Millinocket selectmen agree to the vote. The referendum could be held in June at the earliest.
East Millinocket and Medway residents have rejected consolidation attempts with Millinocket many times, including one 2009 effort that ended in a vote.
Millinocket residents voted 381-51 on Jan. 27 of that year to form an alternative organizational structure, the Sunrise Peak School District, but East Millinocket rejected the plan 157-63 and Medway voted it down 193-18. The towns quit sharing a superintendent soon after. Previous consolidation efforts never got to a vote.
Members of both boards talked about continuing to meet.
“I think it is great that the two boards are setting here tonight talking. It’s a start on the future,” Millinocket committee member Warren Steward said. “Whatever is decided or done here is done for one reason, and that is to benefit the kids. I think that’s what both boards need to keep in mind.”
“It’s been a long time coming,” agreed East Millinocket board member Ryan Whitehouse, whose push for a joint board application to state scholastic authorities for permission to combine some Schenck and Stearns fall sports in September bogged down in discussions over cost-sharing.
Whitehouse said he was a Schenck High School graduate who believed that the two towns should consolidate at Stearns.
“Never. It will never happen,” Millinocket board member Matt Farrington said.
“Why not?” Whitehouse responded.
“Because it won’t,” Farrington said.
“I just think we need to bury the hatchet and sit down and be role models for young people and do things the right way,” Millinocket board member Donald Dow interjected.
McLaughlin’s comments came after Farrington explained that he had for years been “a big proponent” of school consolidation until it probably caused consternation with his brother John Farrington, Schenck High School principal.
But two years ago, when East Millinocket, Medway and Woodville residents voted overwhelmingly to form AOS 66 without Millinocket, Farrington said he got tired of it getting “slapped back in our face.”
“It was always that we were looking to be bailed out. That we had too much debt. We were looking for a handout from East Millinocket,” said Farrington, who added that he still supports consolidation, “but now it sounds like consolidation is coming again when you guys are in financial hardship.”
“It appears that 10 years ago, when we were looking at this, that we were looking for a bailout,” he added, “so how do we sugarcoat this so that it seems like nobody is looking for a bailout now?”
When Farrington remarked that Millinocket school enrollment has increased because of “kids coming from East [Millinocket],” East Millinocket school board member Angel Danforth said the two boards’ relationship has regressed 20 years over the last 1½. The meeting, she said, was about building a future, “not to sit here and slam each other.”
“It’s time to stop that,” Danforth said.
“Exactly,” Farrington said, “so think about the words that you’ve just said.”