Shortly after the struggling Millinocket paper mill closed for good in 2008, former school board member Shelley Farrington brought together a group of parents to discuss opening the schools to overseas students. The international student program would expose Millinocket children to new cultures, spur declining school enrollment in the city, and generate revenue in a way that would not depend on the city’s dwindling tax base.
“We had to find a way to generate revenue outside of the taxpayer,” said Farrington, an education technician at the city’s Granite Street School. “Lee Academy just up the street had a very successful international student program, and we thought, ‘Lee can do it, why can’t we?’”
The Millinocket program, which launched in 2012, aimed to bring up to 25 foreign-born students each year, mostly from China, to study at Stearns High School. Some at Millinocket even thought that as many as 200 foreign students could possibly attend.
Since then, 499 students from Europe and China have attended Stearns High School or participated in a dual degree program through which they complete a Stearns High School curriculum and earn a Stearns degree while taking courses in their original school, according to Farrington and figures provided by Superintendent Dr Joshua McNaughton.
“You learn a lot about being away from home and the language, and you have so much fun,” said Pedro Nicolau, 15, from Mallorca, Spain, whom Farrington has been hosting since October.
But COVID-19 and tensions between the US and Chinese governments mean Millinocket’s international student program had just three students at Stearns this year, and it’s unclear when two contracts with Chinese schools including the district depends on for its revenue to materialize. Future plans to bring European students to Millinocket depend on the district’s ability to find host families, which has been a challenge, Farrington said.
Although the program is funded until June 30, the city plans to continue funding it at the same level as when there were more students, according to minutes of meetings and interviews with board member Erika Mackin. school board, and Steve Golieb, president of the municipal council.
Stearns hosted five to 10 Chinese students and one to three European students each year, between 2012 and 2020, before COVID forced the program to pause, according to McNaughton. The school planned to welcome 13 European students for the 2021-22 school year, but could not find people to welcome 10, which caused the district to lose $150,000 in expected revenue, while cashing in just under $93,000.
Four European students will attend Stearns in the fall for the 2022-23 school year and will stay with host families, Farington said. Another 20 have expressed interest in attending but need the Millinocket families to host them, she said.
Unlike private schools like Lee Academy, which can accommodate international students for four years, the US government only allows international students to attend public schools for one year and requires students to pay all tuition, which can be between $3,000 and $10,000 per year. , according to the Bureau of Consular Affairs.
As part of its dual degree program, Millinocket contracts with two schools in Zibo and LiRen, China, to allow them to use a franchised version of Stearns’ program until 2028 and 2029, respectively, an arrangement that will has generated nearly $67,000 for the district since 2012. McNaughton said he was negotiating a new contract with a school in Junyi, which had previously used Stearns’ program.
Another school in Ningbo has a contract with Millinocket through 2030, but no students have enrolled in the program and China’s Ministry of Education has yet to approve the Stearns program, Farrington said. The Ningbo contract, if finalized, would have 360 participating Chinese students over three years and bring $360,000 to the Millinocket school department.
While 40 to 50 Chinese students typically take part in the dual degree program per year, Millinocket expects 160 students to enroll in the program for the next school year, according to a fact sheet McNaughton provided to the Bangor Daily. News via Farrington.
But those schools don’t always honor their contracts, and the anticipated money Millinocket would receive from the schools was based on reaching their maximum targets for dual degree program participants, McNaughton told the school board during a briefing. May 3 meeting.
Figures he provided to the school board showed the international program generated $2.3 million between the 2012-13 and 2020-21 school years. Farrington said expenses for those years — for salaries, host family allowances, meals, student insurance and transportation — were $324,000, for a positive margin of $1.9 million. dollars.
A new element of the international program that would bring 20 European students to Millinocket for one to three weeks this summer could bring in between $25,000 and $75,000, according to McNaughton.
He did not respond to a question about when those details would be finalized, but his fact sheet said the school department was contacting five agencies to send European students to stay at the Big Moose Inn and participate in intensive recreation and outdoors in English. summer program.
Three of those agencies declined to participate this summer, and one said it could send students to Millinocket, but did not have specific details, international program coordinator Michelle McGreevy told the school board during its meeting. of May 3. The Fifth Agency did not say whether it would participate.
McGreevy referred questions from the Bangor Daily News to Farrington.
China strict COVID protocols closed a steady pipeline of exchange students who could be relied upon to generate revenue for Millinocket schools, worrying Mackin, who said he twice asked McNaughton to discuss program finances at meetings of the school board.
“Where is the world at right now, and where things have changed in the last 10 years, we just have to give [the program] a look,” Mackin said. “I’m not trying to shut it down. I’m not trying to put a dark, negative cloud over something. I’m just looking into it, because it’s the responsible thing to do.
McNaughton claimed he could not discuss the program with school board members or the city council, preventing any discussion of whether the program should be restructured to accommodate fewer students, according to Mackin and Golieb.
McNaughton said the school department’s attorney advised him against discussing the program publicly in an email to Mackin and at a May 31 school board meeting.
“The city and school department have engaged legal counsel to review the legal status and details of the [international program bank] accounts,” McNaughton wrote to Mackin on May 27. “Our lawyer has indicated that the council is not engaging in any public discussion on this subject until further notice.
Mackin refuted this, citing A typeface which requires the superintendent to obtain school board approval before seeking legal advice.
Golieb said he didn’t know what legal issues McNaughton was referring to, nor had the city manager or city council discussed any legal issues regarding the international program with the school board or school department.
McNaughton did not respond to two messages seeking comment on the international program’s legal issues, or respond to a list of questions from the BDN.
“There is no universe in which a governing body would be kept in the dark about a legal matter by its own subordinate,” Golieb said. “Equally unlikely is the idea that the superintendent would ever be legally advised not to share such information with his board of directors.”
The city plans to discuss the school’s budget, including the international curriculum, at a board meeting with McNaughton on Thursday, he said.
School board member Michelle Brundett said she’s worried the board will be given “cold, hard numbers” to show how much money the school department would actually receive.
“It was always ‘around, anticipated or projected.’ Never any really firm answers to even make you see where the numbers are coming from,” Brundett said.
School board president Warren Steward declined to comment. “It’s in the hands of our lawyer,” he said.
Still, the international program has provided a wealth of opportunities for cultural exchange and fostered strong relationships between international students and Millinocket children, said Donna Redus, a resident who hosts Antoine Fontaine, a sophomore from Lyon. , in France.
Redus, which has hosted students in the past, keeps in touch with former students through WeChat, a Chinese messaging app. A former student, Ken, returned to the University of Maine and stayed with it during school breaks and vacations when he could not return home to China.
“My son is going to be a basket case when these boys leave,” Redus said of Fontaine and Nicolau.
Attending Stearns allowed her to participate in school plays, a show choir and the fall musical, which her school in Spain did not have, Nicolau said.
Fontaine, 16, said he loved playing for the Stearns High baseball team and Redus’ family made him feel like home.
“I like to say, it’s my same family, even if [we don’t speak] the same language,” Fontaine said.