EAST MILLINOCKET, Maine — The school boards of East Millinocket, Medway and Woodville have sent a proposal to neighboring Millinocket offering to combine the Katahdin region’s two high schools, officials said Tuesday.
The proposal, Millinocket Superintendent Kenneth Smith said, complements talks he has had with Lee Academy over a possible co-educational venture with that school that would be based in Millinocket.
Under the one-page memo offered by the three Katahdin region towns, students currently attending Stearns High School in Millinocket would instead attend Schenck High School in East Millinocket. According to the plan, Millinocket would save $700,000, said AOS 66 Superintendent Quenten Clark. Millinocket would pay $9,209 in tuition per student sent to Schenck instead of the town’s current cost per student of $13,158 at Stearns, according to the proposal.
“I was told to write this letter in December, and I was dithering because I wanted to be sure we can fit in another 186 students into Schenck,” Clark said Tuesday. “It would give us a high school of about 300 kids. That’s big enough to do a lot and small enough so that everybody knows everybody.”
The AOS 66 school boards voted unanimously during a meeting on Monday night to send the memo to the region’s school and town leaders. Clark personally delivered the memo to Millinocket Town Manager Peggy Daigle and Smith on Tuesday.
Daigle was receptive to the idea.
“I would say that the town and school need to look at any and all possible solutions to providing cost effective and streamlined services now and into the near future,” she wrote in an email on Tuesday.
Smith said he would read the East Millinocket proposal on Wednesday. The early, exploratory talks with Lee Academy about that high school educating Millinocket students in Millinocket haven’t gotten into specific plans yet, Smith said.
“In the future, if the world comes apart all of a sudden, we want to make sure our kids are educated at home,” Smith said. “We don’t know [what form that home education would take yet]. We have just had a preliminary meeting. We will continue to build on that. That is the only school the school department has had any discussion with. We will meet again. It may not lead anywhere, but it could.”
Lee Academy, a private 9th-13th grade school located approximately 35 miles from Millinocket, contracts with SAD 30 to accept high school students from Lee, Springfield, Winn and Webster. It also accepts students from around the U.S. and international students from China, South Korea, Europe, Mexico and South America.
Under the AOS 66 proposal, Stearns High School would become an elementary school, Clark said, although Millinocket officials would decide how to handle their own schools. The four towns would retain their own educational leadership and identities, he added.
The proposal is not a school consolidation, Clark said.
“Everyone is well aware, as they should be, that the people in all towns involved want to maintain their identity, and that includes their own school system,” Clark wrote in the letter, which is signed by the three boards. “However, we must not let personal decisions stand in the way of responsible business decisions.
“We must do what is best for the children in the region and ensure that the path forward makes economic sense. This can be accomplished by finding common ground, and we must compromise on issues well beyond what we personally would like to do,” the letter continued.
If Millinocket officials accept the proposal, the new Schenck High School would have more complete curricula than either institution presently, and the Katahdin region would have a fighting long-term chance to maintain a high school against economic, population and state aid declines that threaten both schools, Clark said. The school is also in a centralized location within the Katahdin region.
The layoff of 212 workers from the Great Northern Paper Co. LLC mill on Main Street in East Millinocket last month motivated the proposal indirectly, Clark said. Since December, he has been refining the proposal and ensuring it was feasible, he said.
Currently, Schenck houses high school students and students at Opal Myrick Elementary School, which is grades 1-4. Schenck and Medway Middle School could handle the influx of students from Millinocket, but Medway Middle School might have to accept a few more grades from Opal Myrick, Clark said.
“The plan will indeed result in a ‘Win-Win-Win-Win’ education plan and an economic plan that will truly benefit all four towns,” Clark wrote in the letter. “The schools will not consolidate! Each town will maintain their own budget and control and operate the schools in their communities. Tuition will be paid and received by the respective communities. The tuition rates will be according to the state of Maine rates.”
At least three previous attempts to combine or consolidate since the 1990s have failed among East Millinocket, Medway and Millinocket, whose sometimes bitter rivalry dates to the establishment of the first paper mills in East Millinocket and Millinocket at the turn of the 20th century.
The proposal’s timing matches almost to the day an offer made by Millinocket school leaders in February 2013 to accept Schenck High students for $1.5 million. AOS 66 leaders never told Smith or Millinocket school leaders what they planned to do with that proposal, Smith said.
That proposal came with free bus transportation and was meant to save East Millinocket from having to spend $1.8 million renovating Schenck High School’s roof. A donation from a Florida woman and East Millinocket native who won Powerball will pay for the roof repairs over the spring and summer, East Millinocket officials have said.
AOS 66 and Millinocket schools have had several financial and leadership problems over the last year. Then-Maine Department of Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen stopped Clark in April 2013 from prohibiting East Millinocket School Committee member Jennifer Murray’s two children, fourth- and eighth-grade girls, from continuing to attend Millinocket’s Granite Street Elementary School and Stearns High that September.
Bowen’s approval of the continuing school transfer came two months after Clark accused Millinocket school officials of “trying to steal children away” from East Millinocket.
Bowen’s successor, James Rier, announced through the department’s spokeswoman last month that, for now, he was avoiding fining AOS 66 $110,000 for failing to follow state laws regarding alternative organizational structures. AOS 66 has to hold an election by July 1 to determine whether residents want to maintain the AOS and submit a plan by July 1, 2015, to correct the deficiencies state officials found.
Millinocket officials discovered in the 2012-13 audit that its School Department carried a $512,237 deficit in the school’s unassigned fund balance since 2011 by over-anticipating several revenue sources. Millinocket town and school officials have clashed repeatedly over budgeting during the last three years.
An attempt to discuss Katahdin region school consolidation in May 2013 got so contentious between the Millinocket and East Millinocket school boards that a high school student scolded both for their bad behavior.