George Stevens Academy in Blue Hill, Maine Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

After years of declining revenues and trying to boost funding sources, George Stevens Academy in Blue Hill has cut staff in an effort to make ends meet.

The school eliminated 12 positions, including five faculty positions. An additional seven full-time positions are being changed to part-time, according to school officials.

Although no student programs are being fully discontinued, some are being reduced, said Sally Mills, chair of the school’s board of trustees. The number of electives offered in each academic department has been cut. There will also be fewer opportunities to take French classes. Other changes include the elimination of the school’s communications job, the reduction of both the school nurse and librarian positions to part-time, and the combination of the assistant head of school and dean of students positions into one.

Special education, co-curricular activities, athletics, music, industrial tech and career-oriented classes, and physical education all will remain as they have been this academic year, Mills said.

“The priority was to preserve programs and minimize the impact on people,” Mills said. Staff members whose jobs were being eliminated or reduced were told a few days prior to when cutbacks were announced last week, she said.

Ellen Best, chair of the Blue Hill’s elected select board, said that it has been apparent to many area town officials since at least 2019 that cuts were needed. That’s when school officials first asked area towns for more money. Enrollment has been declining, the school’s administration has been “a little top heavy,” she said, and some classes GSA has offered have had fewer than 10 students taking them.

“There’s only so much you can offer before it doesn’t make financial sense,” Best said, adding that the staff cuts “are an economic necessity.”

Because of a state law that sets the rates for how much tuition towns pay to send their students to either a private school or to another public school run by another town or district, GSA can expect to get at least $13,788 in tuition for each of its students next year, which is $476 higher than its set tuition rate this year. Towns can pay up to 15 percent more than that set amount, but not more than 15 percent, according to Mills.

The school is asking each of the seven towns that send students to GSA — Blue Hill, Brooklin, Brooksville, Castine, Penobscot, Sedgwick and Surry — to pay an additional $1,700 per student, or roughly 12 percent higher than the set rate, for a total of $15,488 per student.

But that amount is still “many thousands of dollars below what it costs to educate high school students in Hancock County,” GSA officials said in a statement on the school’s website. To try to close that gap, the school will continue to pursue fundraising efforts via donors and other sources of revenue such as grants, rental income, and its endowment, they said.

Mills acknowledged that the cuts are difficult to digest and have been upsetting to many in the community. She said some could be reconsidered, but that the board had to reduce expenses in light of next year’s projected enrollment figures.

“COVID money kept us going for a while,” Mills said, referring to federal pandemic relief funds that went to schools nationwide.

Fewer students are enrolling at George Stevens, partially due to a decrease in school-aged children in the area. More local families are also choosing to send their teens to other area high schools, such as Ellsworth High School, John Bapst in Bangor and Bucksport High School, than they did 10 or 20 years ago as well, Mills said. The number of foreign boarding students, who typically pay a substantially higher tuition rate helping to cover more overall operating expenses, has also declined over the last decade.

maine school staffing woes

In the mid-2000s, the school created a boarding program and began accepting international students as a way to boost enrollment and revenues. But after expanding that program to include 40 or so such students, many of whom came from China, that number shrunk to seven last year and now is 15. International politics played a role in that decline, even prior to COVID putting severe constraints on international travel.

Best said she is concerned that the way the school has handled the situation could push even more local Blue Hill Peninsula families to send their children to other high schools.

GSA’s enrollment for the current school year is around 275 students but is expected to decline to about 260 for the 2023-2024 school year and then to remain relatively low for the next several years, Mills said. In the late 1990s, GSA had an enrollment of around 380 students.

“In a different world, I think GSA would have dealt with this over the past several years,” she said, rather than waiting until now. “By the time we saw those numbers in 2019, they should have started to deal with it then.”

GSA began sharing some of its financial information with the towns when it first asked for more financial support. Last spring, it agreed to work with a newly formed budget review committee created by the towns to help make the school’s budgeting process more open to area town officials and taxpayers.

“I want George Stevens to survive and thrive, but when you start having problems and you don’t handle them well, the problems are likely to increase,” she said. “I hope they get some help.”

In addition to cost-cutting measures, Head of School Tim Seeley, who came to GSA in 2015, announced in December that he would leave at the end of June — but his departure came two months earlier than expected.

The departure was moved up because the board selected an Interim Head of School and wanted to have her start as soon as possible, Mills said. GSA’s new interim top administrator, Shelly Jackson, started working remotely this week from New Hampshire but is expected to begin working in person on campus next week, she said.

Seeley will assist Jackson as she settles into her role in the coming weeks, according to Mills. Jackson, who was one of 26 applicants for the job, is expected to serve as interim Head of School for the next year while GSA searches for a long-term replacement for Seeley, she said.

Avatar photo

Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....