Soon after Millinocket’s struggling paper mill closed for good in 2008, former school board member Shelley Farrington gathered a group of parents together to discuss opening schools to foreign students. The international student program would expose Millinocket children to new cultures, boost the town’s declining school enrollment and generate revenue in a way that wouldn’t rely on the town’s shrinking tax base.
“We needed to find a way to generate revenue outside of the taxpayer,” said Farrington, an ed tech at the town’s Granite Street School. “Lee Academy just up the street has 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 as many as 25 foreign-born students each year, mostly from China, to study at Stearns High School. Some in Millinocket even thought as many as 200 foreign students could eventually participate.
Since then, 499 students from Europe and China have attended Stearns High School or participated in a dual diploma program through which they follow a Stearns High School curriculum and earn a Stearns diploma while taking classes at their home school, according to Farrington and numbers provided by Superintendent Dr. Joshua McNaughton.
“You learn a lot about just being away from your home and about the language, and you have so much fun,” said sophomore Pedro Nicolau, 15, of Majorca, Spain, whom Farrington has hosted since October.
But COVID-19 and tension between the U.S. and Chinese governments mean that Millinocket’s international student program had only three students attend Stearns this year, and it’s not clear when two contracts with Chinese schools that the district relies on for revenue will materialize. Future plans to bring European students to Millinocket are contingent upon the district’s ability to find host families, which has been a challenge, Farrington said.
Though the program is funded through June 30, the town is considering whether to continue funding it at the same level as when it had more students, according to meeting minutes and interviews with school board member Erika Mackin and Town Council Chair Steve Golieb.
Stearns hosted five to 10 Chinese students and one to three European students each year, between 2012 and 2020, before COVID forced the program’s pause, according to McNaughton. The school planned to host 13 European students for the 2021-22 school year, but couldn’t find people to host 10 of them, causing the district to lose $150,000 in expected revenue, while taking in a little under $93,000.
Four European students will attend Stearns in the fall for the 2022-23 school year and stay with host families, Farington said. Another 20 have expressed interest in attending, but need Millinocket families to host them, she said.
Unlike private schools like Lee Academy, which can host foreign students for four years, the U.S. government only allows foreign students to attend public schools for a year, and requires that students assume all costs of attendance, which can be between $3,000 and $10,000 a year, according to the Bureau of Consular Affairs.
As part of its dual diploma program, Millinocket contracts with two schools in Zibo and LiRen, China, to allow them to use a franchised version of Stearns’ curriculum through 2028 and 2029, respectively, an arrangement that has generated almost $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’ curriculum.
Another school in Ningbo has a contract with Millinocket through 2030, but no students have registered for the program, and the Ministry of Education in China has not yet approved the Stearns curriculum, Farrington said. The Ningbo contract, if finalized, would have 360 Chinese student participants over three years and bring in $360,000 for the Millinocket school department.
While 40 to 50 Chinese students typically participate in the dual diploma program per year, Millinocket expects 160 students to register for the program for the next school year, according to a fact sheet McNaughton provided to the Bangor Daily News through Farrington.
But those schools don’t always honor their contracts, and the anticipated money Millinocket would receive from the schools was based on whether they hit their maximum targets for dual diploma program participants, McNaughton told the school board at a May 3 meeting.
Figures he provided to the school board showed that the international program generated $2.3 million between the 2012-13 and 2020-21 school years. Farrington said that expenses for those years — for wages, host family stipends, meals, student insurance and transportation — were $324,000, for a positive margin of $1.9 million.
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 $25,000- $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 communicating with five agencies to send European students to stay at the Big Moose Inn and participate in an English-language intensive and outdoor recreation summer program.
Three of those agencies declined to participate this summer, and one said it may send students to Millinocket, but didn’t have firm details, international program coordinator Michelle McGreevy told the school board at its May 3 meeting. The fifth agency hasn’t said whether it will participate.
McGreevy referred questions from the Bangor Daily News to Farrington.
China’s strict COVID protocols have shut off a steady pipeline of exchange students who could be counted on to generate revenue for Millinocket schools, worrying Mackin, who said she asked McNaughton twice to discuss the program’s finances at school board meetings.
“Where the world is at right now, and where things have changed in the last 10 years, we just need to give [the program] a look,” Mackin said. “I’m not trying to shut it down. I’m not trying to put a negative, dark cloud over something. I’m just looking into it, because that’s the responsible thing to do.”
McNaughton claimed that he couldn’t discuss the program with school board members or the town council, stymying any discussions about whether the program should be restructured to accommodate fewer students, according to Mackin and Golieb.
McNaughton said that the school department’s lawyerch advised him against publicly discussing the program in an email to Mackin and in a school board meeting on May 31.
“Both the town and the school department have engaged legal counsel to work through the legal status and details of the [international program bank] accounts,” McNaughton wrote to Mackin on May 27. “Our counsel has advised that the board does not engage in any public discussion regarding this matter until further notice.”
Mackin refuted this, citing a policy that requires the superintendent to get approval from the school board before seeking legal advice.
Golieb said he didn’t know what legal issues McNaughton was referring to, nor had the town manager or town council discussed any legal issues about the international program with the school board or school department.
McNaughton did not respond to two messages seeking comment on the international program 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 of a legal matter by their own subordinate,” Golieb said. “Just as unlikely is the idea that the superintendent would ever be legally advised to not share such information with his board.”
The town plans to discuss the school budget, including the international program, at a council meeting with McNaughton on Thursday, he said.
Michelle Brundett, a school board member, said she was concerned that the board was not receiving “cold, hard numbers” to show what money the school department would actually receive.
“It’s always been ‘around, anticipated or projected.’ Never really firm answers to make you even see where the numbers are coming from,” Brundett said.
School board chair Warren Steward declined to comment. “It’s in the hands of our attorney,” he said.
Still, the international program has provided a wealth of cultural exchange opportunities and fostered strong relationships among the foreign students and Millinocket children, said Donna Redus, a resident who is hosting Antoine Fontaine, a sophomore from Lyon, France.
Redus, who has hosted students before, keeps in touch with former students via WeChat, a Chinese messaging app. One former student, Ken, returned to attend the University of Maine and stayed with her during school breaks and holidays when he couldn’t travel home to China.
“My son is going to be a basket case when these boys leave,” Redus said of Fontaine and Nicolau.
Attending Stearns has allowed him to participate in school plays, show choir and the fall musical, which his school in Spain didn’t have, Nicolau said.
Fontaine, 16, said that he enjoyed playing for the Stearns High baseball team, and that Redus’ family made him feel right at home.
“I like to say, they’re my same family, even if [we don’t speak] the same language,” Fontaine said.