No schools, no community, East Millinocket residents say

Posted Jan. 08, 2013, at 1:17 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 08, 2013, at 9:35 p.m.

Poll Question

EAST MILLINOCKET, Maine — Save the town’s schools.

That was the message the Board of Selectmen and school committee received from residents during a special meeting Monday night. Town leaders held the meeting to discuss the future of Schenck High and Opal Myrick (K-4) schools, which share the same building. Middle-schoolers attend Medway Middle School.

About 75 people attended, including Millinocket Superintendent of Schools Kenneth Smith and Millinocket interim Town Manager Charles Pray. No one at the meeting advocated closing the school or sending local students out of town, instead preferring to explore repairing the school building, which could cost several million dollars.

“We need to have a school for people to live here,” committee Chairman Dan Byron said during the meeting. “We won’t have a community if we don’t have a school.”

The committee will start work at its February meeting on a comprehensive five-year plan to save the schools, starting with the repair of the building’s roof. That’s slated to cost $1.8 million, Byron said.

“The townspeople want to keep their school. They feel they don’t want to see the school go to the wayside. They want to fix it up,” Byron said, “but at what cost? That’s the point we need to come up with.”

School leaders called the joint meeting to determine what residents wanted to do with the 56-year-old building, which needs several million dollars in repairs in addition to the roof. The meeting allowed Superintendent Quenten Clark to acquaint attendees with some of the hard math they will face if the issue goes to referendum as town leaders expect.

Counting the $1.8 million and other possible repairs, town taxes could rise four to eight mills — or about $50 per mill for property worth $50,000 — if taxpayers pay the several million in total repairs the building requires, said Clark. State aid would shave about $700,000 of that cost, but state officials have said state aid is unlikely, given the fiscal crunch state government faces.

In his report to the boards, Clark said there is an additional $125,000 in new salary and technology costs he expects the board will have to pay this year or next. The $1.8 million would be paid off over 20 years at $85,000 annually, Clark said.

Trends indicate the continued shrinking of regional and school populations, state school aid, and town revenues. The town’s largest taxpayer, Great Northern Paper Co. LLC, will be exempt from a property tax increase by the deal its owners made when they restarted the mill, officials have said. GNP would have to agree to pay higher taxes if the town wanted it to.

If the population declines continue, Clark said, the burden on taxpayers will increase. Another unknown is whether state officials would require other costly improvements to the building to bring it up to code.

Residents who spoke during the meeting said they wanted to see the cost projections. They chided school board members who said they needed residents to provide them with direction. Townspeople have repeatedly told the board that they don’t want to lose their school.

Some residents wondered whether proceeds from the Dolby landfill could benefit the town. Others said the board should do more to cut costs. School committee member Jennifer Murray said she feared people would be badly surprised at how heavy the cost of keeping the building open will be.

“I think it will be shocking,” she said.