EAST MILLINOCKET, Maine — Voters will probably get a chance next month to decide whether to fix Schenck High School’s roof in a $1.87 million project that the school board supports and selectmen oppose.
The Board of Selectmen voted 3-2 on Tuesday to recommend against the project if the referendum occurs. Chairman Clint Linscott and members Mark Marston and Mark Scally voted to recommend against the project.
The selectmen will vote in two weeks whether to allow the late June referendum. Linscott said selectmen have informally agreed that the vote will be balloted, not a town meeting. No dates have been set.
“We want to see what the true thoughts of the citizens are,” Linscott said Wednesday.
The selectmen’s budget committee voted 4-0 on Monday to recommend against the project, while the East Millinocket School Committee voted 3-2 to recommend supporting it. State law requires the recommendations be printed on the ballots.
In almost continuously changing budget and cost estimates, the school board seeks what is now $1.87 million in repairs to its leaky roof, gym floor and other elements. Repair estimates have jumped from $187,000 to $2.1 million as alternate possibilities and unfinished town and state budgets have made solid numbers difficult to develop.
School board members have said that the education offered at Schenck, the town’s only active school building, is excellent and essential to the town’s economic development prospects.
But the town’s population has dropped from 2,557 in the 1970 census to 1,723 in 2010. East Millinocket’s projected student population in September is 209 students, the lowest in town history.
The building, which also houses K-4 students, is 1957 vintage.
The roof repair is part of several increased costs that selectmen expect to spur a property tax increase from 23.33 mills to about 44 mills next year. It is part of a larger question — whether to close the school or repair the roof and possibly commit later to as much as $7 million in building repairs to keep students in East Millinocket.
Once an ardent supporter of roof repair, budget committee member Tina Dionne said decreasing state subsidies, the town mill’s economic fragility and an expected several hundred thousand dollar increase in the school budget changed her mind.
“To me the only logical answer is school consolidation with equal say from the towns involved,” Dionne said. “I wanted to see our school stay open but I don’t see how it can without financially hurting everyone involved.”
Several teachers criticized Selectman Mark Scally in Monday’s and Tuesday’s selectmen’s meetings for publicly discussing school consolidation with Millinocket. School board member Mark Wallace said Monday he felt “disrespected” that Scally didn’t first float his idea to the school board.
“To use these scare tactics on the older people in town is not fair to them. They can’t handle these uncertainties,” board member Angel Danforth said. “You’ve got to stop [talking] with the BDN. We have to communicate.”
Wallace opposes reopening Schenck as a regional middle school in two years, as Scally suggested. The school would probably not reopen, Wallace said, because state law would require about $5 million in repairs to meet current building codes.
Scally said he spoke first to his own board not as disrespect, but to find ways to keep a school in town. A retired teacher with experience teaching in Millinocket, East Millinocket and Medway, Scally said he has seen how well Katahdin region students work together.
The region’s adults, Scally said, must abandon an “age-old prejudice” and work together like the students do if the area shall survive.
“I think it is time for the adults to take the reins,” Scally said. “I think we should join together rather than be at each other’s throats.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story said that AOS 66′s projected high school student population in September is 131 of 209 students, the lowest in town history. It is East Millinocket’s projected student population in September that is 209 students, the lowest in town history.