September 22, 2019
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State steps in to approve East Millinocket students attending Millinocket schools next year

EAST MILLINOCKET, Maine — The state’s education leader on Monday effectively overruled AOS 66 Superintendent Quenten Clark by approving two students’ applications to attend Millinocket schools in September.

Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen approved East Millinocket School Committee member Jennifer Murray’s appeal to allow her children, fourth- and eighth-grade girls, to continue to attend Granite Street Elementary School and Stearns High School in September, Murray said.

In an email to some parents, Clark cited confusion over pending state legislation regarding what are referred to as “superintendent swaps” — students attending out-of-district schools with a superintendent’s permission — in saying that he would deny all swap applications until June.

“I do intend to deny some of them if I can and people will appeal if they can,” Clark said in the email sent to some parents within the AOS who submitted transfer applications. “The proposals [state legislators are considering] seemed to range from doing away with swaps and-or appeals to making them not need anyone’s approval.

“I’m not really wanting to keep unhappy people here, but I’m also not crazy about some of the people I have helped being quite negative about me/us. In the end each case is individual,” Clark added. “I know of some I will certainly approve. Something must have happened in Millinocket, cause all of a sudden a bunch of people want me to give them agreements for next year right now. Ordinarily this is a summer thing.”

On Monday, Clark predicted that he would probably have approved Murray’s request. He said he probably would approve the half-dozen others that Murray said have been submitted, but would still wait until June to make his decisions due to the legislative uncertainty.

“I have no problem with Steve Bowen approving them,” Clark said Monday, adding that he wasn’t aware that parents had a problem with his actions until he heard from state education officials.

Murray said Clark’s delay will inconvenience parents and students who need to plan for September. Thirteen students attend Millinocket schools on superintendent’s agreements, Millinocket Superintendent Kenneth Smith has said.

A competition between Katahdin region schools over students seemed to surface in February when Clark said Millinocket school officials were plotting to use East Millinocket and Medway students to offset Millinocket’s declining school enrollments. Millinocket had offered to accept tuition students from AOS 66 and the offer was rejected.

Millinocket officials denied the accusation that they were plotting anything. The supposed competition over students comes as both communities face continuing enrollment and population declines, shrinking state aid — which is based in part on enrollment — and increased expenses. Schenck High School also needs a new roof, a project Murray opposes.

A first-year board member who ran unopposed in November, Murray said she was “pretty surprised when [Clark] said he was putting off [approving the student transfer applications] because that was not my experience last year. Last year he signed them in the office while you waited.”

Parents who want to send their children to out of town schools can appeal to the Maine Department of Education if their applications are rejected locally, Murray said.

About 1,500 superintendent’s transfer agreements are made statewide annually. Eighty denials have been appealed to Bowen, said David Connerty-Marin, the department’s spokesman. That is a sharp increase from previous years, based partly on Bowen’s publicly stated preference to assume that parents know what is best for their children.

Bowen rejected three of the appeals he has heard, Connerty-Marin said.

In her appeal to Bowen, which was suggested to her by Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, Murray said she favored sending her children to Millinocket for a second year because her older daughter wants to take a foreign language class at Stearns that isn’t offered at Schenck.

She said she homeschooled her younger daughter last year because her daughter encountered significant bullying at Medway Middle School.

“I do not want my younger child to attend school at Medway Middle because they seem to have blinders on and at times even foster an environment that is conducive to bullying. The bullying problem has now entered the high school since it was widely accepted at the Middle School,” Murray wrote in her appeal, which is dated March 29.

Murray is among several parents who have complained of bullying. In response, school officials have said that they have addressed the problem aggressively with programming designed to curb it.

“My younger child is an exceptional student in math and Medway Middle School has consistently had poor scores in math over the past several years, even showing negative growth in math for some students during the year. At Granite Street Elementary in Millinocket they have encouraged and developed a math program specifically for” her, Murray wrote.

The East Millinocket school board and those of other AOS 66 communities, Medway and Woodville, will meet at 6 p.m. on Tuesday at Schenck and might discuss the issue, Murray said.

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