BLUE HILL — Selectmen and other municipal officials from Union 93 and Union 76 towns will gather at the Blue Hill town office Friday at 1 p.m. to share ideas about the proposed tuition increase at George Stevens Academy.
The plan is to “pool our ideas and shake them up in a bag,” quipped Vaughn Leach, chairman of the Blue Hill Board of Selectmen.
Union 93 includes the towns of Blue Hill, Surry, Penobscot, Castine and Brooksville. Union 76 includes the towns of Brooklin and Sedgwick.
Last November, GSA, a private town academy serving Blue Hill Peninsula towns, proposed a $2,000-per-student tuition increase. Headmaster Timothy Seeley cited declining enrollment in the school’s boarding program, which has largely drawn students from China during the program’s eight-year history. That has resulted in a million dollars less revenue annually. The boarding program had been subsidizing the cost of educating local high school students, according to Seeley. A $2,000 increase would bring the annual tuition to $13,759.
After the proposed increase was announced, there were a flurry of meetings and debate among local school boards, parents and community members about the proposal. The move upset school and town officials tasked with preparing budgets and explaining proposed property tax increases.
In Blue Hill, for example, which has roughly 120 students at GSA, according to Union 93 Superintendent Mark Hurvitt, an additional $2,000 per student would be an additional $240,000 annually for the high school education budget.
So, town officials want to meet to brainstorm ideas.
Leach said Friday’s meeting is a chance for the selectmen of each town to find out what others on the peninsula are thinking about the proposed increase.
However, the public will likely not be able to comment, Leach said. The meeting is not a public hearing per se but a chance for selectmen to discuss amongst themselves ideas for handling the proposed tuition increase.
GSA intends to hold public hearings in each of the Union 93 towns during the month of February, Seeley said.
Among those slated to attend the meeting on Friday is Castine Town Manager Shawn Blodgett. Blodgett said he will be at the meeting but isn’t sure whether any Castine selectmen will be present.
Brooksville Selectman Hal Snow and John Gray plan to attend.
Brooklin Selectmen Deborah Brewster and David Reiley will attend, said Bill Cohen, who chairs the Brooklin Board of Selectmen.
All three Sedgwick selectmen plan to attend, Michael Sheahan, Ben Astbury and Bob Publicover. Surry Selectman Bill Matlock plans to attend and said one other selectman may be present.
Seeley said that he keeps hearing “How could this happen and GSA not know about it?”
“Well, we did know about it,” Seeley said.
The headmaster pointed to at least two reports he provided to local school boards during the past two years stating that enrollment in the boarding program was declining and would probably not recover.
“We have been talking about it,” said Seeley. “It has been out there.”
“I hope we can move beyond shock and anger and whatever,” the headmaster said. “I’d like us all to start talking about educating the kids. The core issue is supposed to be how to have the best high school education on the peninsula for the students and their families.”
Boarding student enrollment has been declining for several reasons, Seeley has said previously. There are more American high schools recruiting students from China than there were even five years ago. There also are more schools opening in China that teach English and American-style education. The strained relations between China and the United States have been another factor, Seeley said.
Not everyone is vehemently against the proposed increase.
“We need to support it, I think,” said Brooksville Selectman John Gray. “When you think about what we’re paying for the elementary school — $22,000 a student” the high school seems like a deal.
“We need young people,” Gray said. “We’re not going to get young people without good schools.”
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.