June 17, 2018
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Can mill town rivals consolidate schools? Rumford and Mexico did it

By Nick Sambides Jr., BDN Staff

RUMFORD, Maine — To Andra Beauchesne and others of her generation, the section of the Androscoggin River separating Rumford and Mexico was once more like the Berlin Wall than a mere body of water.

The 65-year-old receptionist graduated with the Class of 1965 from Rumford’s Stevens High School, Mexico High School’s biggest rival in sports and most other things, she said.

“A lot of [Rumford] kids did not associate with kids from Mexico. It was something that just wasn’t done,” Beauchesne said recently. “The only time I ever went to Mexico was because they had a roller skating rink.”

That same sort of rivalry is among several parallels between the Oxford County mill towns and the Penobscot County mill towns of East Millinocket and Millinocket, with one big exception: Mexico and Rumford put aside their differences in 1989. That’s when the towns consolidated schools. Mountain Valley High School opened in Rumford and Mountain Valley Middle School opened in Mexico. That cooperation has since occurred with other town departments.

East Millinocket Selectman Mark Scally didn’t have Rumford and Mexico in mind, but he proposes something similar to what those towns did. He wants to close Schenck High School and send East Millinocket students about eight miles to the west, to Stearns High School in Millinocket, for two years before reopening Schenck as a Katahdin region junior high.

In the last 40 years, Millinocket’s population plunged from 7,742 to 4,466 residents while East Millinocket dipped from 2,567 to 1,723 as of the 2010 census.

Consolidation didn’t reduce local taxes for Mexico and its much larger neighbor — in fact, one Mexico official said that it cost that town some money — but it saved both towns’ ability to offer their children the best education possible by maintaining a full complement of classes and extracurricular activities, officials said.

Scally said his proposal won’t initially save East Millinocket money but it would allow East Millinocket, Medway and Millinocket to save their schools and eventually cut into rising town costs.

It would delay until 2015 a proposed $1.8 million repair of the leaky portions of Schenck’s roof, replacement of its gym floor — an expected casualty of the roof work — and other repairs.

The roof repair is among several rising costs that East Millinocket leaders expect will spur a near doubling of property taxes next year, and 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.

Scally said his proposal would buy residents time to decide whether they want to to keep town students in town. It would also answer some East Millinocket teachers’ and residents’ concerns that losing Schenck and Opal Myrick Elementary School, which have shared the building since 2011, would eliminate the town’s most crucial selling point and make it unattractive to families and investors, he said.

Town teachers and some residents have said that Schenck and Myrick are East Millinocket, that the community is crippled without them, and that the tax increase is affordable. The East Millinocket school board rejected a proposal to pay tuition to send the town’s students to Millinocket in February, but Millinocket Superintendent Kenneth Smith told board members recently that the offer remains on the table.

Scally’s idea “has been kicked around for generations,” he said. “I just put it back out there.”

Similar histories

As with East Millinocket and Millinocket, Mexico and Rumford faced declining populations, rising costs and regional economic struggles when they considered consolidation, said 53-year-old Steve Nokes, a wrestling coach at Rumford and Mountain Valley high schools from 1989 to 2001.

“The rivalry was biggest in the 1960s. As the populations dropped, the rivalry died,” Nokes said.

Still, to some people, consolidation “was like closing a church,” Nokes said. “There are those people who never want to do it even if it is the right thing to do. You always have those people.”

“Most of the people who were against the merger were reliving their childhood through their children,” said Louanne Thibodeau, gymnastics coach at the Greater Rumford Community Center. “They thought of sports as No. 1 instead of budgets or schools.”

Residents of both towns feared a loss of identity with consolidation, just as East Millinocket residents do now, said Bob Anderson, the community center’s program director.

“It was more the parents than the kids,” Anderson said. “The parents and kids were worried if they were stars or starters on the varsity teams, that they wouldn’t be when the schools merged. Who would be the coach of the teams? Who would be the principal?”

In sports, Schenck and Stearns are much like what Mexico and Rumford used to be. Schenck for decades has played the underdog to Stearns, which with its larger population competed at the top level, Class A, in interscholastic sports for decades, Millinocket Town Councilor Michael Madore said.

Though both schools also played each other in baseball and softball, basketball was the sport that drew the most competitiveness between Stearns and Schenck,said Madore, an ed tech at Stearns and a Stearns 1974 graduate who covered Katahdin region scholastic sports as an announcer at WSYY 94.9 FM for about 25 years.

The schools’ rivalry, Madore said, has diminished over the past few decades as the schools’ diminishing populations forced Stearns and Schenck, which into the 1990s were Classes A and B, to Classes C and D, the state’s lowest by student populations.

The Katahdin region’s competition comes more from the region’s two paper mills and the social and political dynamics that sprung from them. For generations, East Millinocket and Millinocket each had a paper mill whose workers had a very prideful and competitive relationship, though that competition ceased when the Millinocket paper mill closed in 2008.

Today, East Millinocket’s new Great Northern Paper Co. LLC facility employs about 257 people and is the region’s sole paper mill. With NewPage and its approximately 650 workers, Rumford has its area’s only paper mill, and always has.

The four mill towns have great history born of the same seed. The Oxford Paper Co. in Rumford, as it was called, was once one of the largest book paper mills in the world under one roof, said Dru Bretton, volunteer archivist at the Rumford Historical Society. Similarly, the old Great Northern Paper Co. mills in East Millinocket and Millinocket were among the nation’s largest newsprint, containerboard and pulp makers for much of the 20th century.

Garret Schenck, whose family the high school is named after, was vice president of the International Paper mill in Rumford before he helped found the East Millinocket and Millinocket mills in the early 1900s.

Overcoming rivalries

A retired teacher who has worked in East Millinocket and Millinocket schools, Scally recently referred to the social and economic rivalry between the towns as “an age-old prejudice.”

It was a different sort of rivalry in Oxford County, said Greg Gallant. The co-mingling of Mexico and Rumford residents in their one mill created a certain chumminess, said the Mexico native, who was Mexico’s police chief during 14 of his 18 years on that department, from 1975 to 1993.

“We had a tremendous sports rivalry only because a river separated us,” Gallant said. He helped spark the Mexico-Rumford rivalry as a member of the Mexico Pintos football team that defeated the Rumford Panthers for three years straight before he graduated in 1965.

“Everybody’s parents knew each other [from both towns] because everybody worked at the mill,” Gallant said, “and all the players from both towns knew each other. It was not like football in Florida or Texas, but there was a lot of town pride involved.”

“I can’t remember that [school consolidation] was terribly controversial,” said Greg Davis, editor of the Rumford Falls Times from 1983 to 1996. “It was just a realization that by merging, it made for a more efficient school system, and this long before the state encouraged it.”

The Rumford mill sparked one resentment within its neighbors, Gallant said. Its being in Rumford led to that town having more tax revenue than Mexico. Mexico residents got the dust, smell and degraded roadways created by the mill and its traffic, but none of the funds.

The lack of funding helped create the idea that Rumford people thought themselves better than Mexico residents, said Mexico native Steve Case — much the way that Millinocket’s larger mill and greater population spurred resentments in East Millinocket.

“I felt growing up that people in Rumford really believed that their schools were better than Mexico’s,” said Case, who now lives in Rumford. “They had more funding to do things with. It was just the economic advantage that they had over Mexico. Nothing else.”

Case was taught growing up that anti-Rumford thinking was prejudice. His father, Daniel Case, was a former Stevens High football star, while his mother, the late Margaret Anderson Case, was a Mexico High valedictorian, he said.

“It was a mixed family,” Case said.

The Rumford and Mexico population and economic downturns forced most residents to accept consolidation, Nokes said.

“When the population drops to a certain point, you can’t offer the classes you used to,” Nokes said. “It becomes harder to have teams. Everything became more expensive.”

The consolidation allowed the high school to add golf and lacrosse to its sports programs and maintained several others, including soccer and skiing, said Jim Ippolito, a guidance counselor at Mountain Valley who was on staff when the Rumford and Mexico schools merged in 1989.

The consolidation saved academic offerings, including several Advanced Placement and language classes, that probably would have ended due to a lack of students, Rumford Town Manager Carlo Puiia said.

“The big advantage was that they were able to continue to provide college prep courses at the high school,” Puiia said. “By combining schools, they were able to keep class sizes that were nominal that offered those classes and keep them going.”

A sense of urgency

The Katahdin population declines are expected to continue, adding a sense of urgency for those who support consolidation.

Population predictions compiled by state officials and available at maine.gov show East Millinocket’s population falling to 1,617 in two years, to 1,525 in 2020 and to 1,430 by 2025. Millinocket is expected to lose 500 people and fall to 4,002 in 2015 and to 3,531 by 2020.

East Millinocket has endured a sharp decline in its school-age children, school Superintendent Quenten Clark said.

In 1995, East Millinocket had 380 students living in town. This year, it has 213. Next September, Clark estimates that it will have 209, a 45 percent drop since 1995.

Nearby Medway and Woodville also send students to East Millinocket schools, but those towns’ residents aren’t paying for the Schenck renovation because the school isn’t owned by their towns.

The population downturns in East Millinocket and Millinocket are a main reason the towns’ per pupil operating costs have risen.

According to statistics compiled by the Maine Department of Education, East Millinocket’s per-pupil cost was $7,453 in 2001. The state’s average per-pupil cost that year was $6,641. By 2012, East Mill’s average cost rose to $10,325 per student, when the state’s average cost was $9,726 per pupil.

Millinocket’s per-pupil cost in 2001 was $6,844 and $10,521 in 2012.

Not just about saving money

Rumford, Town Manager Puiia said, didn’t see any great savings with school consolidation. The town’s mill rate, $22 in 1990, hovered during the next 10 years between a low of 16.50 mills in 2000 and a high of 21.27 mills in 1997 and 1998, town records show. Rumford’s mill rate this year is 24.25.

Nor did Mexico, which has a mill rate of $25, save money, said Bertha “Betty” Barrett, a Mexico representative to the Western Foothills Regional School Unit 10. RSU 10 is a two-high-school system that has a $35 million budget, 2,800 students and serves 19,000 residents of Buckfield, Byron, Canton, Carthage, Dixfield, Hanover, Hartford, Mexico, Peru, Roxbury, Rumford and Sumner.

RSU 10’s per-pupil cost was $10,024 as of June 2011, according to the Department of Education.

Mexico had to pay about $1 million more in the first few years of consolidation due to a revaluation of Rumford and its mill, Barrett said.

The consolidation worked out well academically, but the increase in school allocation Mexico paid is among the reasons that “the older citizens like myself do not care to join in Rumford in anything because we will get the short end of the stick,” Barrett said.

“We are getting the short end of the stick every time,” she added. “Every time they need money to purchase something or they are in trouble, they call on Mexico.”

Scally said that he was told that his school consolidation plan would save as much as $800,000 in two years, but school officials who gave him that figure didn’t factor in the unemployment costs for the school staff who would be laid off during that time. His plan, he said, would likely cost the town some money initially. He was unsure how much.

Barrett said that having two strong sets of town leaders, with equal voices, is critical to any school consolidation.

The leaders of East Millinocket and Millinocket “had better be very sure that they all have an equal voice and that they have two boards of [town leaders] that keep level heads and don’t get carried away,” she said.

“They have to decide that if they don’t save money, at least they won’t be increasing money,” Barrett added. “There are always small towns that end up paying.”

Mountain Valley now enjoys a rivalry with Cape Elizabeth High School so fierce that it spurred filmmaker Kirk Wolfinger’s award-winning documentary, “The Rivals,” which follows the 2007 competition between those schools’ football teams.

Anderson said he believes that the school consolidation helped lead to Rumford and Mexico sharing ambulance and wastewater management services. The towns’ leaders are considering combining their six fire, police and highway departments into three agencies, he said.

“I think it is better this way,” Beauchesne said. “It seems like we get more done together now than we would have before.”

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