News Feature

Originally published in The Weekly Packet, April 15, 2021
GSA family addresses controversy over tuition increase

by Jeffrey B. Roth

While the political debate about a perceived lack of transparency, public participation and the need for more involvement by elected officials in the decision-making process by George Stevens Academy officials continues, the concerns, opinions and hopes of the school’s students and their families, for the most part, have not been part of the discussion.

Currently, about 300 high school students from the seven sending towns on the peninsula attend the Blue Hill private, nonprofit academy. Prior to the pandemic, there were about 30 international boarding students who were part of the student body. The annual revenue from the boarding program, pre-COVID-19, accounted for about $1 million to the school’s total tuition revenue.

The future viability of that program is under review, according to Sally Mills, chair of GSA’s board of trustees. The loss of that revenue stream, in addition to the potential loss of about $500,000 if voters from the five remaining towns fail to approve the tuition increase request, has combined to create a serious financial crisis.

“There’s only three ways to deal with not having sufficient revenue,” said GSA Head of School Tim Seeley during the April 10 meeting of the Surry Community Improvement Association (SCIA). “So one is to ask families to pay whatever incremental difference there is. The second is to say, let’s still try to serve every child, but we’re going to diminish our program, and we’re going to keep our graduation requirements. We have a really rich electives program. We wouldn’t be able to do all that with wonderful athletics, and extracurricular program, we couldn’t do all of those.”

To date, Brooksville and Penobscot voters approved the GSA tuition increase request. Voters in Blue Hill will decide the matter on April 20 by referendum vote, and Surry will vote on the increase at the April 23 referendum vote. Voters in Sedgwick and Brooklin will be voting later this spring.

For Brooksville residents Greg and Jan Leach and their twin sons, Emery and Logan, 16, who are completing 10th grade this year, the results of the upcoming town referendum votes represents more than a topic of political or philosophical debate—it will impact the educational experience of their sons’ until they graduate two years from now.

“Greg and I are both graduates of GSA, Greg in 1981 and myself in 1985,” Jan Leach said. “We are both very happy with the education that the boys are receiving at GSA. We have never had a problem with communication with the school—there are weekly emails that go out to parents about things that are happening at school and any upcoming events. On occasion, when we have had questions and emailed a teacher or Tim [Seely], we have always gotten a timely response with our questions answered. The teachers at GSA are all focused on making sure that the kids do all that they can to succeed in their classes.”

Jan Leach said that Emery and Logan represent the fourth generation of their family to attend GSA. She added that all of the GSA families she knows in the area believe that the school offers a diversified range of courses, and provides a quality education to all students, regardless of their career tracks.

“In looking at other school tuitions in the area, GSA is not asking for more money than what is deserved/needed,” Leach said. “It is disappointing to send the message that [students’] education isn’t worth paying the increase that GSA is needing to continue to provide them with a great education. It is always said that it takes a village to raise a child; well, GSA is the center of our very large village. If we lose GSA, what is there for a plan B?”

Emery, who intends to pursue a career in off-road and heavy equipment diesel mechanics, said that GSA offers an Advanced Engines course: “Right now we are tearing down and rebuilding a four-cylinder diesel that someone donated.”

“I chose to go to GSA because many of my family members have gone to GSA and have always graduated with a good education that sets them up very well for college,” Emery said. “The staff is always there if you need help and they are there to make the high school experience as easy as it can be while getting a great education. For an eighth grade student who was on the fence about where to go to high school I would tell them that GSA is one of the best high schools around and that they have many courses that are set up for any student to succeed.”

Emery’s twin brother, Logan, also plans on a career working with heavy equipment as a diesel mechanic. Logan said he is taking the Engine Tech and Advanced Engines course taught by Corey Esposito: “We are starting to tear apart a four-cylinder Westerbeke diesel engine this week,” he added.

Both Logan and Emery are members of the varsity golf team. Logan credits his coaches, Ebb Walton and Dwayne Carter, saying: “They have taught me a lot about golf.”

GSA has a ton of electives that include a lot of students interests,” Logan said. “I chose to go to GSA because I think it’s the best school around. The teachers are very supportive and good at what they do. Also you get to know a lot of people who don’t live on peninsula.

“I am worried in a sense if voters don’t approve the tuition increase it would be a terrible disservice to the peninsula because students would not have as much choice for an education. Also you would lose those classes that make GSA iconic.

“[What] I would say about the public involvement at GSA is this: It would be helpful in the sense of getting input from students who go to GSA and parents that know things about GSA that the trustees may not know about GSA because it doesn’t apply to them. Then to the selectmen, I would say…that it is important to have input from the people from the community but also there are some things that don’t apply to the community and they don’t [need] to know about it.”