MILLINOCKET, Maine — State and local education leaders met earlier this week and found it is feasible for Lee Academy to operate Millinocket schools and bring large numbers of international students into town in September 2015, officials said Wednesday.
The idea would allow the private school to save Millinocket schools from declining funding and enrollment that threaten the school department’s viability. But the concept is far from finalized, officials said.
The Maine Department of Education is doing economic modeling “which will give us an idea of the projected financial picture” with such an arrangement, Lee Academy Headmaster W. Gus LeBlanc said in an email.
Millinocket Superintendent Kenneth Smith and LeBlanc are “contacting other parties who have had some previous experience with such an arrangement to determine other issues that needed to be resolved that the [Department of Education] may not have been involved in or aware of” when the three sides met Monday, LeBlanc said.
“We each, school board and Lee Academy officials, must determine the end result will be beneficial to their respective organizations,” Smith said. “We will continue to communicate as we find answers to our questions.
“For the most part, we are in uncharted waters, so we are going slow,” he added.
LeBlanc, Smith and some Millinocket school and town leaders met with state education Commissioner Jim Rier, Director of Policy and Programs Deb Friedman, Director of Special Services Jan Breton and Director of School Finance and Operations Suzan Beaudoin, Department of Education spokeswoman Samantha Warren said.
Millinocket and Lee leaders explored several options but didn’t offer the state a specific proposal, Warren said.
The basic idea: Lee Academy would manage town schools as early as September 2015. The schools would rely upon an influx of international students — most likely drawn from four high schools in China negotiating with Lee to send students to the academy. The Chinese presence would make the arrangement economically feasible and educationally enriching, officials have said.
Such a merger would keep children educated locally and bolster the town’s sagging economy with an arrival of students whose families can afford to send their children to Lee for $32,000 each. It would also allow the academy to continue to grow the international program, possibly the state’s largest, that it pioneered with Chinese students in 2008, officials have said.
Millinocket also has an international program that hasn’t been as successful as Lee’ s. Millinocket officials blame federal laws that limit visas for international students attending public schools to one year, while students attending private schools such as Lee can get four-year visas. Lee has about 90 international students; Millinocket has a dozen. The plan so far calls for bringing in Chinese high schoolers only, officials have said.
Millinocket residents would have to approve the merger. State law, Warren said, makes some items non-negotiable. Municipalities are required to educate their children and would likely retain at least partial control of it through a school board and superintendent. Special education programs would also have to be provided, and some business functions would fall upon the municipality, she said.
Lee and Millinocket leaders will have a clear picture of the possibilities before the school year ends in June, LeBlanc said.
“If the decision is then to move forward, it becomes a matter of working out a contract between the parties that is acceptable to all,” he said.
Millinocket and Lee leaders have no further meetings scheduled with the Department of Education at this point, Warren said.