MILLINOCKET, Maine — The school department in this Penobscot County town has been battered for years by steep declines in enrollments and population, heavy state aid cuts and shrinking revenues that have some local leaders worried that quality public education is no longer affordable. But a deal with a local private school could turn everything around.
Thirty-five miles southeast of Millinocket is Lee Academy, the private institution serving grades 9-postgrad, and the best-funded high school in the area, with 128 international students paying $4 million this year in tuition, room and board. The school’s enrollment also includes 101 local students whose towns pay a total of $987,275 annually to send them there.
Lee Academy is the only high school in northern Penobscot County that hasn’t been forced to automatically institute zero-growth budgets in recent years, and the school’s campus has been upgraded with more than $3 million in capital projects since the international program began in 2008.
Lee Academy officials are in negotiations with four high schools in China to start bringing more international students to Maine, but the campus cannot accommodate more students without building more facilities — or using buildings elsewhere, Lee Headmaster W. Gus LeBlanc said. Despite Millinocket’s economic problems, the buildings housing Granite Street School and Stearns High School are in good condition.
These are the circumstances that have led Millinocket and Lee Academy school leaders to explore a ground-breaking idea: Let the private school assume operation of Millinocket’s public schools.
Such a merger could result in a large number of international students living in Millinocket to enrich the school’s academic offerings. It would keep local children educated locally and bolster the town’s sagging economy with an influx of students whose families can afford to send their children to Lee for $32,000 each.
LeBlanc said the concept would follow the model established by Lee Academy, kept afloat by its international program, which features satellite schools in the Philippines and South Korea.
“It’s a little out of the box,” LeBlanc said. “But in one major way, there is a real similarity between Lee and Millinocket. Just like Millinocket is very interested in keeping the local population benefiting from a local education, Lee Academy is interested in keeping its local students well educated.”
LeBlanc and Millinocket school Superintendent Kenneth Smith cautioned that talks between both sides and the Maine Department of Education are in embryonic stages, with many questions yet unanswered.
But they have met twice already to discuss the idea and hope to meet with state Education Commissioner Jim Rier within three weeks to begin probing whether the arrangement would be legally feasible, and what form it might take.
Department of Education spokeswoman Samantha Warren said Friday that state education officials are aware of the talks between Lee and Millinocket, but “we haven’t been privy to them, and it wouldn’t be appropriate for us to comment at this time on this local matter.”
If all goes well, Lee Academy might be ready to assume control of town schools in September 2015, but some aspects of the program might be ready for introduction during the 2014-15 school year, Smith said.
“Our primary motive would be to ensure that kids keep getting educated in Millinocket,” Smith said Friday. “There isn’t any specific plan to do anything. These are all possibilities that we are exploring.”
Among the many unanswered questions: How many international students would be needed to make the plan financially viable? Are there enough foreign students interested?
Millinocket’s own international student program has drawn about a dozen students. Further development, Smith said, has been hobbled by a federal law that requires international students attending public schools to apply for visas annually. Private institution students get four-year visas, which works to Lee Academy’s advantage.
Other questions include: How much tax relief would the plan provide Millinocket residents? Would Millinocket have to sell its school buildings to the academy? How would the town’s unionized teachers be affected, since Lee Academy is a nonunion shop?
And what measure of local identity and control would remain?
“Possibly all [local identity and control] could be lost, and it is possible that there would be something in between. We don’t know,” Smith said. “Right now, we are talking about survival. You have to have reasons to do things. We have to survive.”
Rier, Smith and LeBlanc are assembling those and other questions for their first meeting, Smith said. They hope to compare their lists of questions to help identify core issues to be addressed.
“We have to see what shape [the idea] might take and if both of us benefit from it,” Smith said.
Millinocket officials also plan to meet with attorneys from Drummond Woodsum of Portland, which has worked closely with Lee Academy and Millinocket schools on international-student and state law issues, to investigate the legality of the idea, Smith said.
Town Council Chairman Richard Angotti said he was pleased at the thought of the educational and economic vitality a large group of international students would bring to Millinocket. Besides Chinese students, Lee’s population has students from 17 countries, 15 states and 22 Maine communities, according to the school’s website, LeeAcademy.org.
“Our town is at a crossroads,” Angotti said. “With the federal government creating federal mandates [for education] and not funding them, and the state government creating state mandates and not funding them, [the financial burden] is all falling on our community. Something has to change. Things can’t go on the way that they have.”
With a vote of 640-547, a $6.3 million budget for Millinocket schools in August during a third budget referendum was approved. Last month, the town’s auditor discovered a $512,237 deficit in the 2012-13 fiscal budget, which lapsed on June 30, 2013. The town’s school and government budgets have been cut significantly over the past several years, with Smith saying Friday that town officials had informally suggested a $450,000 budget cut in the 2014-15 budget, which school officials are developing. Despite the cuts, the town has a $29.50 property tax rate, up from 26.4 mills the previous year.
“We have been constantly crushed by the town council, and the last word we have heard is another huge cut. Well, we can’t sustain that,” Smith said.
Compared to the council’s pressing financial demands and the “constant negativity” coming from Millinocket’s neighbors — the AOS 66 communities of East Millinocket and Medway — Lee Academy officials are refreshing, Smith said.
“Lee Academy knows that they exist because [their international student program] saved them. We are in a new era now,” Smith said. “It is great to work with somebody who is positive, upbeat and not the constant negativity that seems to exude from the Katahdin region.”
However, the idea isn’t Millinocket or Lee Academy’s sole option. Academy officials are looking at buying school buildings in other nearby towns, LeBlanc said, while Millinocket has an offer to tuition its students to AOS 66 to consider.
Smith said that as far as he is concerned, a tuition offer Millinocket made to East Millinocket a year ago is still on the table because that town’s officials never replied to him about it. Millinocket’s school board will probably discuss the Lee Academy and AOS 66 proposals when it meets early next month, Smith said.
Besides Lee Academy and AOS 66, Millinocket leaders have no other consolidation or tuition offers from other communities, Smith said.