News Feature

Blue Hill
Originally published in Castine Patriot, June 3, 2021 and The Weekly Packet, June 3, 2021
GSA asks towns to consider draft contract proposal

George Stevens Academy has prepared a draft contract proposal to be used to define the long-term relationship between GSA and the seven towns that pay tuition for their students to attend the private high school.

GSA’s “Proposal Regarding Governance, Transparency, Communications, and Contracts,” which was amended after several Secondary Education Financial Planning Advisory Committee (SEFPAC) members raised concerns about the 10-year contract term, now includes the clarification: “Our intention is to put something on the table for discussion purposes. The particular terms of any agreement would be negotiated and finessed, subject to review by each party’s own attorney. Our hope is that the towns and GSA will work together in a collaborative spirit so that the terms of any agreements would ultimately be uniform across all the sending towns.”

Proposed expectations

Written by GSA attorney Ronald Schneider Jr., of Bernstein, Shur, Sawyer & Nelson, the draft proposal allows each town select board or school board to nominate an individual to serve on GSA’s board of trustees, who “should have the requisite skills, experience and temperament to serve as a trustee on a non-profit board of an educational institution and must understand and accept that their duty will be to GSA and its mission.” The proposal emphasizes that trustees must be loyal to GSA and its missions rather than serve on behalf of “a constituency seat” or be “motivated by the best interests of a town.”

The second section of GSA’s proposal addresses concerns regarding transparency, communications with the towns and with members of the public. The proposal includes public quarterly meetings hosted by GSA; the continuance of a GSA-hosted annual informational public meeting; and an annual meeting open to former trustees. In addition, “GSA will solicit feedback on its budget from the Committee [SEFPAC] and members of the public prior to approval by the [board of trustees].”

GSA would also agree to continue to “make financial information and other key documents available to members of the public via its website,” and GSA representatives would regularly attend select board and school board meetings “as appropriate.”

Legal context

Contracts between sending towns and private schools are permitted by Maine statute, specifically, MRS Title 20-A, §2703. Contract. It provides specific provisions governing the contents and terms of contracts between “governing bodies of the sending units and receiving” schools.

Several SEFPAC select board and school board members expressed concerns about a 10-year-term contract. State law provides for contracts ranging from two to 10 years.

The law also allows for the “establishment of a joint committee if the receiving school is a private school; shall include other provisions parties deem necessary; must be ratified by a private majority vote of each of the governing bodies party to the contract; and must meet any additional requirements set forth in rules established by the commissioner and must be filed with the commissioner. Contracts with private schools must be approved by the commissioner,” the statute states.

Schneider said GSA’s contract proposal is based on similar contracts between other state private academies that accept taxpayer-funded tuition. He noted that GSA and the sending towns had contracts in the past, but at some point, the practice ended.

“To be clear, we are not proposing specific terms at this time,” the proposal notes. “We simply want the committee to get a sense of what one of these contracts looks like and the kinds of topics they potentially cover.”

Joint committee approach

In the past, GSA worked with a joint committee, but Sally Mills, chair of GSA’s board of trustees, said the practice was discontinued because working with two governing boards was unwieldy; consequently, the joint committee was later abandoned. Some SEFPAC members have suggested reestablishing the joint committee as a vehicle to provide oversight of decisions by GSA’s trustees and its administration.

Several other town select and school board members have suggested that a joint committee could address concerns related to the perceived lack of accountability by GSA to taxpayers paying for tuition increases. SEFPAC representative Ben Wootten, a member of the Blue Hill school board, has consistently argued that adding trustees who do not represent taxpayers’ interests fails to address the need for public representation regarding GSA’s financial decisions.

“The benefit of a contract is that everyone—the towns and GSA—can plan accordingly,” the GSA proposal states. “The respective towns would vote to approve a contract for its term, rather than vote on GSA’s year-to-year tuition requests. If this committee is willing to pursue this option, the next step could be to form a small working group to figure out the logistics of negotiations, review, and approval.”

The draft proposal includes a provision for sending towns to pay GSA 15 percent of the “sum of the Base Tuition Rate” set by state law. In other words, during the contract period, towns will be responsible for paying 100 percent of the per-student regular education tuition and two-thirds of the Base Tuition Rate. However, special education services and any services “beyond regular education,” which include food and transportation services, would be billed separately to the appropriate entities.

Next steps

At the May 24 meeting of the GSA Secondary Education Financial Planning Advisory Committee, Ben Astbury, chair of the Sedgwick select board, who also chairs the committee, suggested future meetings of the committee should be delayed until select board and school board members from the sending towns have the opportunity to review and comment on the contract. The contract is a key element in GSA’s proposal to allow each town to nominate an individual to serve on the academy’s board of trustees.

“I’m aware that there’s been some discussions within the town governments regarding the offer presented; however, I’ve yet to hear from all of them,” Astbury said. “I’d like to remind you all that there are some matters of formal legal process intertwined within the discussions moving forward in regards to the offer and contract. This committee is advisory in nature; the committee does not possess the authority to unilaterally negotiate offers on behalf of the sending towns.”

Blue Hill select board member Jim Dow said getting the sending towns together is a “useful next step.” However, he noted that he wasn’t “confident we’ve heard the whole story.”