News Feature

Blue Hill
Originally published in Castine Patriot, February 11, 2021 and The Weekly Packet, February 11, 2021
GSA tuition increase request raises questions about budget planning

by Eli Forman and Jeffrey B. Roth

In reaction to George Stevens Academy’s request for a $1,000 per student tuition increase for the 2021-2022 budget, elected officials from the sending towns—Blue Hill, Brooklin, Brooksville, Castine, Sedgwick, Surry and Penobscot—expressed a need for more evidence from GSA to justify the tuition increase.

To address those concerns, the GSA Board of Trustees agreed to form a “Secondary Education Financial Planning Advisory Committee.” That committee, which GSA now refers to as the “Planning Advisory Committee,” was to be composed of select board and school board representatives to facilitate providing more financial and administrative transparency to elected officials and the public in general.

The first meeting, held on November 18, which was not open to the public, discussed breaking the committee into smaller working groups. The purpose of the committee, according to the minutes, is to gather “the tools and build a story for public officials to discuss GSA and the tuition increase at town meetings” and to provide “a specific breakdown of cuts already made to GSA’s budget.” The next meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m., Monday, February 22.

Each sending town is required to include education budgets as a warrant item as part of annual Town Meeting. Due to COVID restrictions, not all of the select boards have decided how to host a Town Meeting.

During the past two months, The Weekly Packet has received numerous letters about GSA’s tuition increase request, the administration’s decision to use a hybrid-instruction model, and concerns related to transparency and public participation in budget deliberations. In addition, members of sending town select boards and school boards have commented on a lack of communication between GSA and local elected officials.

As a result, the Packet and Castine Patriot invited sending town select board and school board members who serve on the GSA Planning Advisory Committee to list any concerns they have related to the tuition increase request, in addition to any other comments they wished to make on the subject. Here are their comments:

Blue Hill

Selectman Jim Dow and school board member Ben Wootten serve on the GSA advisory committee.

While Dow did not respond to the newspaper’s email, Wootten replied: “It might be best to let you come to your own conclusions at the committee meeting. An alternative is to attend the BHCS Board meeting and ask questions there.”

At the Monday, February 8, Blue Hill Select Board meeting, Dow and board member Ellen Best approved a motion to hold the annual Town Meeting by referendum vote, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Tuesday, April 20, in the Blue Hill Consolidated School gym. The GSA tuition increase will be listed as a separate warrant article, rather than being combined with the education budget, which had been the case in the past.

“I think that we ought to let people speak about this question whether we make a recommendation one way or the other,” Dow said. “We’ve heard that the budget committee is going to make a recommendation one way or the other. I’m not. I’m not sure about whether I want to do that or not, frankly; the reason being that there’s been so much publicity about this.”

Best added: “They know 103 people have signed up to be at George Stevens next year…(plus) sometimes there were four [other] people come in. So that is $106,000 to add to the overall budget. From my point of view, and I believe Jim’s point of view, we would put this on as a separate question on the referendum, not within the education budget, so that people can vote yes or no as to whether or not they wish to give GSA this extra money.”

Brooklin

Selectman Deborah Brewster and school board member Michael Sealander serve on the GSA planning advisory committee.

Brewster said: “If the Brooklin School Board votes in favor of the tuition increase then I as a select board member am fully supportive. Is this sustainable? I don’t know. GSA is in an awkward position being a private academy with a mission to serve the public. While GSA’s board of trustees is fully responsible for finances, the facility, and the academic program, it serves them well to invite their constituents into the conversation whenever possible and whenever it will be helpful to their decision-making process. I do not think they should go back to a dual-board structure. It was unwieldy and almost impossible for the head of school to navigate. ‘Too many bosses.’ When the joint board was disbanded, term limits were instituted for the board of trustees to afford more opportunity for new trustees to be appointed. At the same time standing committees of the board of trustees became open to community membership with the hope that some of those members might become trustees. These were both efforts at increasing inclusivity. Also, the trustee bylaws used to direct that there be at least one trustee from each peninsula sending town. I don’t know if that is still the case. GSA is a good school with great potential. It deserves our involvement and support.”

Sealander said: “Deb and I are in agreement. GSA is a good school and is worthy of support.”

Brooksville

For appointee member from the Brooksville School Board Matt Freedman, the issue revolves more around general transparency than the question of money.

“When GSA first presented their request for additional tuition last year, the biggest issue in Brooksville was not so much the money but a general lack of transparency in how the school is governed,” wrote Freedman in an email to the Packet.

Freedman expressed that in his eyes, the public has been upset with this situation for years, and the issue finally boiled over when GSA requested additional public money beyond the state tuition rate last year.

Freedman expressed optimism that a viable solution will be found and wrote that GSA has already taken steps to provide more information to the public.

“I think GSA has responded positively, providing detailed budget information for the first time,” he wrote, adding, “We’ll see where it goes, but I think the creation of the Advisory Committee is another positive step.”

In terms of his specific concerns with the tuition increase request, Freedman responded that he agrees with GSA’s assessment that they will be forced to diminish their educational offerings without the extra money.

“Currently, almost all of our high school students go to GSA….I think that the academy has made a case that without additional funding, programming could be adversely affected,” wrote Freedman.

The Brooksville school board, with the support of the Budget & Advisory Committee, chose to include the additional tuition in the regular budget this year rather than as a referendum question as is the case in Blue Hill.

“This is now in the hands of the voters,” concluded Freedman.

Castine

Castine school board appointee Kathy MacArthur could not be reached before press time for comment.

Penobscot

In Penobscot, school board appointee Jim Goodson echoed many of the same concerns. He also emphasized transparency as a major issue, but agreed with Freedman that GSA seems to be responding well to those requests.

“They’re listening,” he said, referring to the Financial Planning Advisory Committee meetings.

Goodson also pointed to the extra costs to Penobscot taxpayers if the tuition increase request were approved as a primary concern.

“It’s a lot of money,” he said.

In terms of specific reforms, Goodson floated the idea of what he calls “the magnificent seven,” comprising seven elected members from each sending town representing their respective town’s interest as permanent members on GSA’s board of trustees.

Whether or not this is legally possible is up for debate due to the complicated bylaws of private schools, but the issue is currently being looked into by the concerned parties.

After the Penobscot Selectmen scratched a warrant article brought to them by Penobscot School Board Chairman Jerry Markley that, if approved, would have required parents of GSA students to pay the extra tuition themselves, Penobscot plans to put the tuition request to a vote as an article on the town warrant.

Sedgwick

Selectman Ben Astbury and school committee member Kelly Samperi serve on the GSA advisory committee.

Astbury did not respond by press time.

Samperi said: “As you may know the Sedgwick School Committee has decided that we would like to give the community the opportunity to decide on the GSA tuition increase request. As a board we do not have a position on whether or not we feel it should be accepted. As such, it would be unfair of me to answer to my personal opinion, which may not represent the feelings of all board members. I attend the GSA advisory committee as a representative of Sedgwick and report back to our school committee what is discussed. This is so we can fully understand their plan and discuss it at our public meetings held monthly. We do this as an update, not as an article for the committee to vote on. We firmly believe it is important for the townspeople to be able to decide on this themselves.”

Surry

Surry Selectman Bill Matlock and school board member Michelle Berger serve on the GSA advisory committee.

Berger did not respond by press time.

Matlock said: “The three Surry Selectmen attended the Surry School Board’s meeting on February 9th. It was decided by the School Board that the question of the GSA’s tuition increase will be presented as a referendum item at town election in April. Given that it was a School Board meeting it’s inappropriate that we comment on the meeting.”