Students walk outside of George Stevens Academy in this 2019 file photo. Credit: Nick Sambides Jr. / BDN

BLUE HILL, Maine – As officials at George Stevens Academy request an additional $1,700 per student from its sending towns on the Blue Hill peninsula, there is a movement to incorporate more local input into the nonprofit school’s budgeting process.

The independent town academy in Blue Hill that serves grades nine through 12 currently collects a tuition of about $12,000 per student, which is paid by the seven sending towns — Blue Hill, Brooklin, Brooksville, Castine, Penobscot, Sedgwick and Surry — on the peninsula.

The rate is set by the Maine Department of Education, but is well below what it costs to educate a high school student in Hancock County, according to academy head Tim Seeley. That’s why the academy is seeking the tuition hike. But with town-paid tuition comprising about 80 percent of the academy budget, the towns want a say too.

The academy’s cost per student is about $14,000 per student and without the supplemental tuition it would incur a deficit of about $660,000, according to academy documents. In the past, the academy was able to make up the difference with the tuition from foreign boarding students. At its peak, the school had almost 50 boarding students – most of them from China – that would pay about between $40,000 and $50000 in tuition, Seeley said.

“It used to generate literally hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars every year in surplus above its own costs that we could use for the educational program,” Seeley said.

But that program has shrunk to seven boarding students, largely due to the pandemic, rising diplomatic tensions between the U.S. and China and increased competition for those students, according to the school head.

Without that revenue, the academy has asked towns to pitch in more money. The towns approved an extra $1,000 request last year. The proposed $1,700 hike per student would set the school on sustainable financial footing and stave off any major operating changes, Seeley said.

Even if the extra tuition is tacked on, the academy is still cheaper than starting a public school on the peninsula, according to the school head. The average cost per student for Ellsworth, Deer Isle-Stonington and Mount Desert Island high schools are all higher than the academy, according to 2018-19 cost figures.

“I think it’s a good deal,” Seeley said.

With this increased fiscal responsibility, some town officials want more of a say in where the money goes. James Goodman, a school committee member in Penobscot, has developed a proposal to create a town-appointed committee that would review the academy budget along with the academy’s own financial committee.

“We all love GSA, but we felt in the past there was no transparency in how the budget was being spent,” he said. “People want representation on where our money’s going.”

The proposal is currently being shopped around the sending towns. The towns and the academy would eventually have to sign off on the idea. Seeley said the academy is behind it in principle and has put more financial documents on its website in an effort to shed more light on the budget process.

For some, the committee is a step in the right direction, but still won’t give the towns any real power to make changes at the school. It would only act in an advisory capacity and the academy board of trustees would still retain authority to approve the school budget.  

“My problem is there is no channel for the towns’ opinions to get taken seriously as to the kind of school they want,” said Ben Wooten, a member of the Blue Hill school committee and a former long-time member of the academy board of trustees.