Senior Brian Evans of Solon (left) and junior Gabe Austin of Caribou take part in a science lab at Maine School of Science and Mathematics. Credit: Courtesy of Ryan McDonald

LIMESTONE, Maine — Many Maine families may have trouble affording the state’s only specialty STEM high school if the Legislature does not increase funding, according to school leaders.

The Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone opened in 1994 as one of the few schools in the state offering advanced placement courses that prepare higher achieving students for college. Since then, the school’s graduates, mostly Maine natives, have entered high-demand fields like engineering and medicine.

MSSM’s status as a residential public magnet school means the Legislature, rather than local taxpayers, cover Maine students’ tuition.

But as operation costs have gone up, the budget for Maine School of Science and Mathematics has remained flat-funded at $3.6 million since 2017. That has prompted school officials to request another nearly $2 million, part of which would cover room and board fees for families and protect teacher positions that might otherwise be cut.

“We’re not in a desperate situation but if we continue to be flat-funded, we would have to make some difficult choices,” said Sam Critchlow, MSSM’s executive director. “[For example], do we freeze teacher pay or eliminate positions?”

Unlike schools within local districts, MSSM does not receive its funds from the Department of Education’s subsidy formula, which factors in local tax valuation. Instead, all funds come from the state’s General Purpose Aid budget, which allocates money toward specialty schools and programs.

Maine School of Science and Mathematics sophomore Annabelle Wainman of Kennebunkport peers through a microscope during a science lab. Credit: Courtesy of Ryan McDonald

Critchlow’s administration, along with Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, is proposing legislation that would increase MSSM’s budget allocation by $1.9 million. If passed, LD 1458 would cover $990,903 in estimated annual room and board costs for families during the next two school years.

Maine natives make up the majority of MSSM’s student population and only pay room and board fees instead of the full $34,300 in annual tuition. But the $9,800 annual room and board cost still deters many low-income families, Critchlow said.

“Even with financial aid, a lot of families get worried that they can’t afford the school, and that breaks my heart,” Critchlow said.

Room and board fees almost discouraged Berwick native Trynitee Fallon from telling her family about MSSM.

Fallon is set to graduate from MSSM on Saturday. She is part of the 25 percent of Maine students at the school who receive financial aid. Fallen’s aid began during her junior year after COVID-19 placed a financial strain on her parents, who operate a small business.

Without that aid, Fallen likely would not have remained at MSSM, a school that she said provided a supportive environment and curriculum tailored to her academic strengths.

“[At my public school], I was taking ninth grade math classes as an eighth-grader. I would have aged out of the curriculum before 11th grade,” Fallon said.

Critchlow, a 2001 MSSM graduate, remembers a time when the school’s annual room and board fees were around $2,000 per family.

As MSSM’s residential services program grew, the school provided health services and weekly activities in addition to daily meals. Budget items prone to inflation like wages and food increased the school’s reliance on room and board as its primary source of income, Critchlow said.

But the current fees risk making the school less affordable for low-income parents, said Autumn Theriault of Poland, whose son, Nikolias, is a sophomore at MSSM.

“Nikolias has been brilliant since he was a kid. It was his dream to attend MSSM,” Theriault said. “[But] without financial aid, that would not have been possible for him.”

LD 1458 has gained bipartisan sponsorship, including from Jackson, House Minority Leader Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, Rep. Mark Babin, R-Fort Fairfield, MSSM alum Nicole Grohoski, D-Hancock, Jill Duson, D-Portland, Joe Rafferty, D-Kennebunk, and Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth.

Maine School of Science and Mathematics students Ben Uhlenhake of Brewer (front, left), Mark Hopkins of Madawaska (front, right), Connor Start of Islesboro and Dhruv Jain (far back) study for final exams in MSSM’s dormitory lounge. Credit: Courtesy of Ryan McDonald

In an April public hearing, Steven Bailey, executive director of the Maine School Management Association, spoke neither for nor against the bill. He voiced concerns that fully covering room and board fees would take General Purpose Aid funds from local school districts.

“Many communities, with the tuition being paid by the state, foot the bill for [MSSM’s] room and board. This is what happens in communities where there is secondary school choice,” Bailey said.

But fully funding MSSM would not take away from other public schools’ funding because General Purpose Aid primarily focuses on specialty programs within public schools, like Jobs for Maine Graduates, Critchlow said.

MSSM intends to help, not hinder, local school districts, Critchlow said. Students can take courses that traditional public schools often cannot offer due to tight budgets, including early college courses or gifted and talented programs.

“When MSSM was founded, the vision was to make the school accessible to all Maine families,” Critchlow said. “We’re meeting our students’ unique needs and, in some sense, taking a burden off some districts.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story did not indicate that the Ocean School is closed, making Maine School of Science and Mathematics the only specialty STEM high school in Maine.