Millinocket formally rejects high school tuition offer from East Millinocket

A May 2013 file photo of Stearns High School.
A May 2013 file photo of Stearns High School. Buy Photo
Posted March 10, 2014, at 1:10 p.m.
Last modified March 10, 2014, at 5:29 p.m.
A May 2013 file photo of Schenck High School of East Millinocket.
A May 2013 file photo of Schenck High School of East Millinocket. Buy Photo

MILLINOCKET, Maine — School leaders have rejected an offer that would have the town paying tuition to send its high school students to neighboring Schenck High School in East Millinocket.

In a letter to the AOS 66 school board, Millinocket School Committee Chairman Michael Jewers held open the idea of a consolidation of the Katahdin region’s two school systems that would utilize Stearns Junior/Senior High School, which he said has an excellent auditorium, music rooms and food preparation area.

“Closing Stearns, with its extremely well-maintained facility and new heating system, does not make sense,” Jewers wrote in the Feb. 28 letter.

AOS 66 Superintendent Quenten Clark said he understood Millinocket school leaders’ desire to keep open their school.

“The offer is on the table. If they want to talk about it at some point, they know where we live,” Clark said Monday. “At some point going down the road, there is going to be some conversation [about school consolidation].

“I have to respect their desire to keep their school open. We feel the same way” about Schenck, he said.

Jewers wrote that “as we [school board members] understood” the Feb. 11 offer from the alternative organizational structure, students in grades 9-12 would be educated at Schenck, which is in East Millinocket. No provisions within the AOS 66 proposal address Millinocket’s K-8 students or the 12 students from unorganized territories and the 19 students from East Millinocket and Medway committed to attend Millinocket schools next year, he said.

Clark said that East Millinocket remains locked in a contract to send its middle schoolers to Medway Middle School until June 2016.

“As we have indicated on many occasions, we would be happy to discuss consolidation,” Jewers wrote in the Feb. 28 letter. “One regional school system to operate the schools for all students, K-12, under one governing school board would mean significant educational benefits and yearly financial savings.”

“We would be happy to discuss a true consolidation or the possibility of tuitioning your K-12 students to Millinocket,” he added.

The one-page memo offered by the three Katahdin-region towns of AOS 66 claimed that Millinocket would save $700,000, said 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.

AOS 66 serves East Millinocket, Medway and Woodville. The three school boards voted on Feb.10 to send the memo to the region’s school and town leaders. Clark personally delivered the memo to Millinocket Town Manager Peggy Daigle and Millinocket school Superintendent Kenneth Smith the next day.

Jewers’ letter questioned Clark and his school boards for involving town council members and Daigle and for not responding to Millinocket’s offer in February 2013 to educate all East Millinocket students for $1.5 million annually.

“Since the unsigned letter [AOS 66 sent] was addressed to Elected Officials in the Katahdin Region and not the School Board, we are unsure if you intend to involve other bodies,” Jewers wrote.

“We never did receive a formal response” to the proposal sent to East Millinocket, Jewers wrote, “only what we read in the newspapers.”

Since the state’s new school consolidation law went into effect, attempts to turn the four towns to a single school system or administration have twice failed since 2009. AOS 66 was formed in 2011.

The four towns’ school administrations were consolidated under Superintendent Sara Alberts from 2004 until she retired in 2009. Since then, East Millinocket, Medway and Woodville leaders have combined some arts programs and some administrative functions with Millinocket, but cooperative school efforts remain limited in scope.

The Maine Principals Association last month approved both Stearns’ and Schenck’s applications to field cooperative teams in field hockey, football and boys and girls soccer starting next fall.

Millinocket school leaders are also in talks to have Lee Academy assume administration of town schools. The plan calls for a large influx of Chinese international students who would board in town as well. Smith said that Lee Academy and Maine Department of Education officials hope to meet to discuss the idea by early next month.

“Both parties are approaching this as a sincere effort to see if details could be worked out to make such an arrangement a ‘win-win.’ It is still early in the process, but neither side (as far as I know) has found a reason to not continue the process,” Lee Academy Headmaster W. Gus LeBlanc said in an email on Monday.

AOS 66 is under state scrutiny for repeated failures to submit audits detailing its finances for the last two years, despite assurance from Clark that the school system would comply with state law. The situation prompted then Acting Department of Education Commissioner James Rier to warn in January that the school system must take corrective action or face $110,000 in fines. Rier said the corrective action plans must be made by July 1, 2014, with the corrective action taken by July 1, 2015.

Clark responded to Rier’s warning at the time by saying AOS 66 is largely an administrative designation, the lack of which would not materially affect relations among the three AOS towns. He said chances of AOS 66 drawing a fine were “miniscule” given that other towns statewide were disbanding AOS and regional school units.

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