8 Miles Apart: A Look Inside School Consolidation for the Katahdin Region

8:06 PM, Apr 30, 2013   |    comments
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EAST MILLINOCKET, Maine (NEWS CENTER) --- Consolidation between schools here and ones in the Millinocket school district has been a topic of discussion for years. Now with Schenck High School needing slightly more than $2 million in repairs, the issue is once again in the public eye.

This week school leaders in town will once again decide whether to ask voters to back a bond. East Millinocket school superintendent Quenten Clark says roughly $2.1 million is necessary to fix the roof at the high school as well as fix the gymnasium floor at Schenck and make the building more accessible for children with disabilities.

"I wouldn't say that this particular stuff that they're asking voters to vote on is a wish list," Clark said in an interview with NEWS CENTER in early March,  "keeping a roof intact if you're going to keep a school here is pretty fundamental to the thing so I don't believe that the current proposal is a wish list at all."

Yet the school board here also has something else to consider: a tuition proposal submitted by leaders in Millinocket last February. It suggests that all students in kindergarten through 12th grade in East Millinocket be absorbed into the Millinocket school system beginning next year. In exchange, East Millinocket would pay its neighboring community $1.5 million in tuition for the year.

"I think the feeling here is its {bringing students together} still good for both towns," said Millinocket school superintendent Kenneth Smith, who has long been a supporter of consolidation, "Those students would be able to benefit from what we have and I think financially it would save huge sums of money for the people who live in East Millinocket."

Some town leaders in East Millinocket agree. One is selectman Mark Scally.

"To enter a 20 year bond debt not knowing the future I think is financially irresponsible," he said in an interview with NEWS CENTER last month, "The buildings can take care of themselves...we'll find the buildings that'll work but to take all that money that could be spent on education and put it into the physical plant, I don't see it."

Advocates for further school consolidation between the two towns agree that it would create more programming opportunities for students. They also stress that it likely will save taxpayer dollars for both communities in the long term.

Yet pursuing the tuition proposal would mean closing Schenck High School, and for some in East Millinocket that's a point of tension.

"It really brought tears to my eyes," said resident Jackie Powers, "because I know the kids how much they love this school and the town and everything."

Currently Schenck is also housing the Opal Myrick School for elementary school students in Kindergarten through 4th grade. AOS 66 downsized two years ago by closing the elementary school building in East Millinocket. Now kids in the district go to East Millinocket for elementary school and high school.

"So keeping the high school here to a lot of people is a very important thing," Clark said, "I think we do a good job educationally in providing the program for the children so I do think the ideal would be to keep the school here."

Clark also highlighted how if Schenck were to close there still would be outstanding debts to pay off on the building. Currently a bond to upgrade the cafeteria at the high school is roughly 7 years away from being paid back.

Closing the high school would also mean paying unemployment costs for teachers and staff who would lose their jobs. Clark estimates that could go as high as $468,000 annually.

East Millinocket's school board has reached out to Millinocket's in recent days. The two sides are planning to meet although at this point its not clear whether they will discuss the tuition proposal.

East Millinocket's school board will be meeting at 7 p.m. on Thursday at Schenck to decide where to direct further discussion.

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