News Feature

Blue Hill
Originally published in The Weekly Packet, April 9, 2021
GSA urges voters to approve $1,000 per student tuition increase

by Jeffrey B. Roth

By mid-May, George Stevens Academy officials will know whether or not a majority of voters from Blue Hill, Brooklin, Castine, Sedgwick and Surry approved a $1,000 per student tuition increase, which represents about $500,000 of its 2021-22 proposed budget.

Penobscot and Brooksville voters have approved the tuition increase request, Sally Mills, chair of the GSA Board of Trustees, said during a March 31 meeting of GSA’s Financial Advisory Committee and subsequent April 5 Blue Hill select board public hearing.

GSA will hold a Zoom public forum Thursday, April 8, from 7 to 8 p.m. to present the school’s reasons for a tuition increase request and to answer questions.

The history behind the present financial crisis facing the semi-private, nonprofit secondary school, first became a matter of public debate on November 21, 2019, when parents of GSA students received an announcement that the administration intended to request a tuition increase of almost $3,000.

Later that year, GSA reduced the tuition increase request substantially in reaction to widespread criticism from town selectmen and school board members, according to Scott Miller, a member of the Blue Hill Budget Committee. Elected officials cited GSA’s lack of transparency, public participation and the lack of local government participation in the decision-making process for their lack of support for the tuition increase. In response, GSA promised to increase transparency by providing financial and budgetary documents, as well as increasing municipal and public participation in the process.

Participants at both recent meetings expressed frustration that GSA has made little progress in fulfilling its promise of increased public participation and municipal involvement in the decision making process. Mills and other GSA trustees disagree with that assessment and point to the establishment of the new financial advisory committee. Composed of representatives of town selectmen and school boards and several GSA trustees, it is still not open to the general public. Mills said that the pandemic is partly responsible for the delay in increasing the school’s interaction with the public at large, but added that as COVID restrictions are relaxed, the board hopes to accelerate its efforts to interact with the public and elected officials.

During the numerous discussions about transparency, public participation and the need to create a more inclusive GSA governing body, the voices of one group of stakeholders—GSA students and their parents—have been absent from the meetings.

For Mills, GSA trustees and school officials, the survival of GSA is the ultimate bottom-line.

“If GSA were to cease to exist or become something smaller and more specialized, many of our students would have to leave the peninsula for a high school education, most likely heading to the high school closest to them geographically, and some, whose parents can manage it, to John Bapst, or boarding school,” Deborah Ludlow, a GSA trustee, said in an email to The Packet. “The opportunity to attend high school in your own community has value. Our secondary school students on the peninsula thrive at the Academy, partly because they are known and supported,”she said.

“Next month’s [finance advisory committee] meeting is going to be devoted to something we’ve been talking about for quite a while, which is how we can have a more inclusive form of governance with GSA to incorporate the towns into into our governance process,” Mills said. “GSA and the board are committed to making this work and to finding a way we can do this, that fits within the law. That accomplishes what we’re trying to do, which is better communications and better representation. We should be in a position to present a proposal at the next meeting.”

Mills said that if voters from the five towns do not approve the tuition request, GSA will have to make hard decisions about how to lessen the impact of the loss of about $500,000 in revenue. GSA has already discussed and investigated ways to mitigate the impact—increasing the amount of tuition families pay, obtaining loans to make up for the deficit, cutting extracurricular activities, such as clubs and sports, and eliminating the number of elective course offerings. Ludlow noted that 70 percent of the budget is allocated to cover employee salaries.

Jim Dow, Blue Hill select board member, said that he hasn’t seen a longer-term plan detailing how GSA plans to deal with increasing costs other than asking for a $2,500 tuition increase next year and $3,000 the following year. He added that he disagrees with GSA’s assessment that significant progress has been made toward creating more transparency and public participation.