Katahdin towns oppose consolidation plan

This story was published on Dec. 08, 2007 on Page B3 in edition 3 of the Bangor Daily News

EAST MILLINOCKET – It isn’t dead, but a proposal to consolidate Millinocket schools with those from three other Katahdin area towns met with some stony disapproval Wednesday.

The Millinocket School Committee enthusiastically supports a tentative, very rough-draft plan to consolidate Millinocket school populations with students from East Millinocket, Medway and Woodville, but the Union 113 communities do not, representatives said.

“It’s a big step to lose your high school,” Union 113 board member Steve Fleming of Woodville said during a meeting at Schenck High School on Wednesday night. “There are other things you lose when you close a high school.”

The consolidation plan, which is separate from a much larger Regional School Unit being considered under the state’s reorganization law, was drafted by Sara Alberts, who is superintendent of both the Millinocket School Department and Union 113.

Under Alberts’ plan, Granite Street School in Millinocket and Opal Myrick Elementary School in East Millinocket would close; Medway Middle School would be reassigned to house pre-kindergarten to grade three pupils; Schenck High School in East Millinocket would now accommodate grades four to eight; and Stearns High School in Millinocket would house – with extensive barriers between them – kindergarten to grade three and grades nine to 12.

Millinocket officials said Schenck could house high school students while Stearns would take grades four to eight, but the dispute seemed more fundamental.

Except for acting East Millinocket School Committee Chairman Gary Morin, no Medway, Woodville or East Millinocket official spoke for consolidating with Millinocket. They said they found no will among residents in their communities to send students to the Magic City.

“We are just not getting a push to go toward Millinocket,” Medway board member Greg Stanley said.

Board member Mary Tompkins of Woodville said she preferred sending students to SAD 67 schools in Chester, Lincoln and Mattawamkeag because she said, “Lincoln treats outsiders better than Millinocket does.”

“When we go to Lincoln, we don’t get booed,” Tompkins said after the meeting, recalling how recently Millinocket students booed the arrival of Woodville students to a common school function. “It was that way when I was in high school.

“I don’t have anything against Millinocket, really,” she added. “I just wish they were less arrogant.”

Millinocket has about 5,200 residents, while neighboring communities have fewer than 2,000 each. In other efforts to consolidate government services, economic development and schools, some Millinocket leaders have said their town should be the cultural and economic center of Katahdin because it’s the biggest.

The other towns don’t agree.

“It would be a lot easier to have [consolidation] in East Millinocket because that’s the most centralized location,” Tompkins said. “And my daughter said she wants to go to Schenck.”

Millinocket School Committee Chairman Thomas Malcolm said that the other towns should not have waited this long to start publicly setting a direction or critiquing Alberts’ plan.

The budget figures supporting Alberts’ plan are far from complete, but it would save at least $45,000, according to the superintendent. Morin estimated that it would have saved as much as $700,000 to East Millinocket residents in 2005-06 and more today given declining enrollment in Katahdin schools.

Without school closings, mergers and other proposed cost savings, per-student costs for the 1,096 students in Millinocket and Union 113, which are between $11,000 and $13,000, would continue to rise, Alberts has said. The statewide per-student average is about $9,000.

Beyond savings, the plan would restore many programs and positions cut in various towns through the last several years as school board members struggled to keep down costs. At present, the region’s school boards cannot continue to offer a quality education without significantly greater funding, Morin said.

Local consolidation could create a fine public school system in an economically depressed area that has enjoyed, and needs to maintain, good schools to help kindle its rebirth, officials said.

Discussion of the issue is to resume with a meeting tentatively set for Dec. 17 at Stearns High School in Millinocket.

Nick Sambides Jr. may be reached at nsambides@bangordailynews.net or 794-8215.