In this September 2009 file photo, a group of students at Lee Academy walk across campus. The 173-year-old private high school notified its staff late last week that it would cut three of its 60 staff positions and accept resignations from three employees. Credit: Nick Sambides Jr.

A school that was on the vanguard of a wave of international student recruitment in Maine is making cuts after struggling to maintain its population of students from overseas.

Lee Academy, a 173-year-old private high school, notified its staff late last week that it would cut three of its 60 staff positions and accept resignations from three employees.

“We have identified a plan which would allow us to begin the 2018-2019 school year without a deficit, prior obligations, or the use of any deferred revenue,” the email stated.

The cuts allowed the school to close a projected $1 million budget gap to the point where it can apply for a loan from the Finance Authority of Maine that would help bring more fiscal security, according to Victoria Merry, vice president of the school’s board.

[Maine HS makes staff, sports cuts after foreign student enrollment drops]

“We’re embarking on a major financial restructuring of our organization,” Merry said Thursday.

Lee was struggling to find enough students in the area to stay afloat around the mid-2000s. Starting in 2007, then-headmaster Bruce Lindberg started making regular trips overseas to recruit students to come receive their high school education in rural Maine.

By 2012, the school boasted 124 tuition-paying boarding students, the bulk of whom came from Asian countries. That was the high point. Boarding student enrollment dipped to 62 by the 2015-16 school year. The numbers recovered slightly the next year, leaving Lee with 72 boarders.

The school made big investments in its facilities to cater to all these students, but has since had to scale back as the numbers started to dip.

The growth of Lee Academy’s international program helped spark interest at other Maine schools struggling to fill classrooms amid declining populations of young people. Mainers over age 65 are expected to outnumber those under 19 by 2020. For many, the answer has been to court international students to maintain enrollment and draw in additional tuition revenue.

Maine schools, public and private, have long looked to China to bolster declining student counts. Chinese parents and students place a high value on American education, and see the high school experience as an opportunity to prepare their child for a U.S. university.

Many look to rural schools in places like Maine because they’re perceived to be safer than cities and have cleaner air.

Competition for these students has increased over the past decade as more schools not just in Maine but across the United States boosted their own recruitment efforts. Now, nations including Canada and Australia are becoming more active in starting international programs, thinning out what was an already shallow pool.

Some administrators have said that a tense political climate in the U.S., protests, immigration crackdowns and negative international press have exacerbated the problem.

Lee Academy isn’t alone in its struggles.

In April, Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield announced it would be “reducing” some faculty, staff and administrative positions and cutting its freshman basketball program as well as fall and winter cheerleading amid a decline in interest from international students.

Lee Academy will be under new leadership going forward. The school hired a new executive director, Luke Shorty, formerly of the Maine School of Science and Mathematics, and will make Associate Headmaster Butch Arthers the new head of school.

Merry said Lee academy has started hosting joint finance committee meetings with the public Maine School Administrative District 30, which includes the towns of Lee, Springfield, Webster and Winn. The hope is that the the schools can start sharing back-office services as a means of cutting expenses.

“As a state, we’re having to all think differently about how to educate students and invest in our communities and schools,” she said.

Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.

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