Originally published in Castine Patriot, January 23, 2020 and The Weekly Packet, January 23, 2020
GSA offers new tuition proposal to towns
‘Everything is up in the air,’ superintendent says
From right, Ben Wootten, GSA trustee William Case, Deb Case, and trustees Sally Mills, Tyler Knowles and Deb Ludlow listen to selectmen from six towns and a town manager discuss the GSA tuition increase request at Blue Hill Town Hall.
by Anne Berleant
A January 17 meeting of selectmen from George Stevens Academy’s sending towns—Blue Hill, Brooksville, Brooklin, Castine, Penobscot, Sedgwick and Surry—to discuss the independent school’s request for a $563 per-student tuition increase in 2020-21, was partly sidelined by an earlier announcement from GSA, reducing the amount of the request to $300.
GSA’s new proposal lowers the financial hit to school budgets, at a time when many districts are deep in 20-21 budget drafts or have completed them, and removes the legal requirement for voter approval. Because the increase will come from raising the Insured Value Factor from 6 percent to about 9 percent, and Maine law allows independent and private schools to charge from 6 to 10 percent IVF, both GSA and School Union 93 attorneys confirmed no town vote is needed. For 2019-20, GSA charged 6 percent IVF.
“It is important to note that this reduced request means our financial situation will continue to be very challenging, and we forecast a deficit,” GSA Board of Trustees Chairman Samantha Politte wrote to select boards, school boards and superintendents in the morning’s emailed announcement.
She spoke in starker terms at the meeting, noting the low, 1.6 percent state high school tuition increase for 2020: “The state’s killing us. We need help on the local level.”
The 2020-21 request is part of a larger proposal that would raise the per-student rate by $2,700 to $14,648 by 2022-23 and then increase tuition at the same percentage rate as the state-set tuition, which came in at $11,271 per student for 2019-20.
Responses and discussion from selectmen in area towns varied.
“There’s the legal and there’s the political,” Blue Hill Selectman Jim Dow said. “This is a sea-change in the way we fund our schools, and people ought to have a voice in that.”
“It gives us an additional number of months…to deal with GSA and the issues we may or may not have with them, individually or together,” Brooklin Selectman David Reiley said.
Others voiced concern over not holding a town vote.
For Sedgwick, with town meeting falling on March 7, a referendum question, requiring 60 days notice, is off the table. “Not only is the referendum an issue, even a warrant article [is],” Sedgwick Selectman Ben Astbury said. “If some of these details aren’t hashed out we may not be able to get [it] onto the warrant.”
Since the request arrived in December, selectmen and school boards have questioned the timing of the request and the lack of foresight and planning by the school, which saw revenues falling since the number of international boarding students began to decline two years ago. Suggestions were made for GSA to use other means besides taxpayer dollars to fill the gap, such as the school’s endowment, partly in the form of real estate, including the Union Street dormitory built in 2016; more aggressive fundraising; and staff cuts.
“The administration is top heavy,” Blue Hill Chairman of Selectmen Vaughn Leach reiterated at the January 17 meeting.
Another concern is that approving the increase for GSA sets a precedent.“It’s an opening for other private schools,” Surry Selectman Betsy Armstrong noted. Local students attend Blue Hill Harbor School and John Bapst, both private/independent schools.
For Surry, which buses students to Ellsworth and GSA, and Penobscot, which buses students to Bucksport and Blue Hill, GSA’s request may be more involved. Both public high schools charge the state set or less per student, which means potential savings in the tens of thousands depending on the number of secondary students enrolled from those towns.
“This is a real tough pill to swallow,” Harold Hatch, Chairman of the Penobsoct Board of Selectman, said. “This is a substantial amount of money in a short amount of time.”
But praise for GSA was also forthcoming. “GSA, as far as we’re concerned, is the top school in our area,” Brooksville Chairman of Selectman John Gray said. “We’re an old town and we want young families to move in. Their first question is schools.” Gray offered the often-raised idea of consolidating the elementary schools instead. “That’s really where we can bring down the town’s cost of education.”
A call for more transparency in finances is part of the conversation, and while the school has released many financial documents, towns want to see actual expenses and revenues rather than the projected budget that was released. Selectmen and school boards also want a seat at the decision making table, with a call for a “super committee” formed by a selectman and school board member from each town, along with a GSA representative (or two).
“I think the consensus is we need to be unified,” Leach said, noting at the meeting’s conclusion, “[This] is a good first step in coming together.”
Head of School Tim Seeley also was encouraged. “There was a clear sense in the room [that] people value GSA and they don’t want us to go away. But the funding is tricky and the timing is tricky.”
And the warrant article requesting a $563 increase, already drafted by attorneys? “I think everything is up in the air right now,” Union 93 Superintendent Mark Hurvitt said. Union 76 Superintendent Chris Elkington agreed: “Sorry to say we are still a long way to having this done.”