BLUE HILL — George Stevens Academy, citing a million-dollar loss in revenue from its international student boarding program, has proposed a $2,000-per-pupil tuition increase, upsetting school board officials and taxpayers across the peninsula.
“We added the boarding academy in the hopes of subsidizing town education,” said GSA Headmaster Timothy Seeley on Monday. The private high school founded the boarding program in 2008.
“The boarding environment and the boarding market has changed drastically in the past two years,” Seeley said. “It brings in a million [dollars] less revenue than it did two years ago. The changes in that market are really systemic.
“We can’t subsidize the towns anymore. We’ve done it to the tune of $3 million over the past four years.”
“We understand it’s a lot of money,” Seeley said of the recent request. “It’s a big deal.”
Sedgwick parents, taxpayers and school officials met at the Sedgwick Elementary School Monday to discuss the issue.
Other meetings have been held or are being organized around the peninsula.
Sedgwick School Board Chairwoman Marti Brill and Union 76 Superintendent Christian Elkington hosted the meeting Monday.
Sedgwick sends 40 high school students to GSA, according to Elkington. That’s the majority of Sedgwick’s high school students. The other 10 attend other high schools, including the Blue Hill Harbor School, Bucksport High School and Ellsworth High School.
The mood in the room among approximately two dozen residents was one of frustration.
Sedgwick resident and former Sedgwick Elementary School Principal Don Buckingham and others cited frustration with a lack of transparency about GSA’s finances.
“Their board meetings are held in private or in secret, however you want to put it,” Buckingham said. “I’ve never seen a copy of their budget. They send a bill for $600,000 every year to the town office. There’s no accountability to the town like there is with other groups.”
“It’s tough giving money to a non-transparent organization,” said parent Michael Rossney. “What’s to keep them from coming back to the trough in three or four years and say we need another 2,000?”
Another resident asked why the increase hadn’t been sought earlier since the school has been running a deficit for the past two years.
“The $2,000-per-student would be a 4 percent increase before we did anything else, salary increases, insurance increases, any contracts that might go up, fuel, electricity, all those things,” Elkington said. That’s double the usual school budget increase of 2 percent.
“The average increase in the Sedgwick budget over the past five years has been 2 percent,” Brill said. “That’s our goal, 2 percent.”
State Rep. Sarah Pebworth (D-Blue Hill) attended the meeting.
Pebworth asked about what might happen if the towns didn’t agree to the increase.
“GSA can say no [to accepting students]?” Pebworth asked.
“Yes,” Elkington replied. “Or GSA can say how are you [as parent] going to make up the difference? If you want your child to go to GSA, you do the difference.”
The Maine Department of Education, even though GSA is a private school, sets a maximum tuition rate schools can charge for Maine students, according to Seeley.
Currently, GSA charges local towns $11,759 a student, the most that the Maine Department of Education allows for a town academy. Even so, Seeley says that figure does not cover the true cost of educating students.
A $2,000 increase would bring the tuition to $13,759.
Or would it?
Muddying the waters is the DOE’s timeline in announcing the private high school tuition rate for the existing school year.
That figure is released next month, January, for the current school year, which started in September.
“The dollar figure we can’t know until the DOE releases this year’s tuition number,” Seeley said. “That’s another whole thing.”
So, for the current school year, GSA and peninsula towns are operating on last year’s tuition numbers.
“We know we need over $2,000 more per student to get close to what it will cost,” Seeley said. While that increase was initially proposed for the 2020-21 school year, which starts in September, GSA officials are considering phasing in the increase.
“We’ve been asked to bring a timetable to get there since no one thinks it can happen in a year — it’s just too much money,” Seeley said on Tuesday.
GSA has an estimated enrollment of 331 students. Of that figure, 31 are boarding students from 14 countries, as well as a couple local students — one is from Cranberry Isles.
Just two years ago, the boarding program had 49 students enrolled, 40 of those from China.
The majority of students are from Blue Hill Peninsula towns: Blue Hill, Surry, Castine, Penobscot, Sedgwick, Brooklin and Brooksville.
Part of the frustration for school and town officials is that December is budget season.
Sedgwick, Penobscot and Brooksville hold annual town meetings and approve spending packages for the year in the first week of March.
Elkington said Sedgwick needs the school budget in January so it can be published in the annual town report.
One Sedgwick mother of a GSA junior was concerned that the increase might mean her son has to attend school elsewhere for his senior year if an agreement can’t be reached.
“The board could say any student who is now enrolled at GSA, we’ll pay whatever the number is,” Elkington said.
“Even after this increase, we’ll still be the least expensive way to do high school on the peninsula,” Seeley said. “In the end, it costs what it costs.”
As for the drop in the number of boarding students, there are a host of reasons for the decline, according to Seeley.
“There’s 30 percent or more American high schools actively recruiting students than there were five years ago,” Seeley said.
There also are fewer Chinese students coming to the United States because there are many high schools opening in China that teach English and American style education, the headmaster said.
“The relations between our countries are not helpful — that’s a cyclical thing,” Seeley said.
Then, Chinese parents and other have concerns about school shootings and about whether America is as welcoming as it used to be, said Seeley.
“Schools in Great Britain and Canada have seen an uptick in enrollment,” he said.
“We are changing the way we market ourselves in China,” Seeley said. “We’ll continue to have a few students from there, but it will never be what it was.”
Without additional funds, the nature of the programming offered at GSA would change, according to Seeley.
Seeley was to meet with the Blue Hill School Board Wednesday, Dec. 11, followed by a meeting with the Blue Hill Selectmen to discuss the requested increase.
Representatives of Union 76 and Union 93 are planning to meet on Wednesday, Dec. 18, at 5:30 p.m. at the Penobscot Community School to discuss the issue. Seeley is planning to attend.