Blue Hill selectmen are dismayed that officials at a private high school attended by the town’s public high school students waited more than a year to disclose a $650,000 shortfall they anticipate in next year’s budget.
George Stevens Academy Head of School Tim Seeley briefed selectmen for more than an hour Wednesday to answer questions about the shortfall caused by a recent decline in the schools’ population of international students, who pay as much as $52,000 each in annual tuition. To close the gap, the academy wants to charge higher tuition from the seven towns that send their local students to the school — up to $2,000 more per student.
School officials first saw signs of a long-term decline in the international student market in mid-2018, a development that would spell some financial trouble for the school. But, not wanting to be uncertain, the school opted not to tell town officials about it until earlier this month, Seeley said.
If approved by the seven Blue Hill Peninsula towns that send students to the academy, the town tuition increase would be the first in George Stevens Academy history added to the per-student cost set by the Maine Department of Education. Under state law, areas that lack public high schools can contract on a per-student basis to send high schoolers to nearby private academies such as George Stevens.
Exactly how much additional funding George Stevens will seek is unclear, but Seeley has said that it would be as much as $2,000 per student. That would be an increase of about $240,000 for Blue Hill, which has 120 students enrolled at the school, selectmen said.
The increase will likely limit what Blue Hill can do with some overdue projects in other categories of its budget, such as improving roads and dredging the town harbor, Selectwoman Ellen Best said.
“How could you come to us now, a few months before we have to get together [a budget] when you had to have known that this was coming? That’s the part of this I have trouble with,” Best said.
The academy first had indications of a possible, long-term decline in its international student enrollment in mid-2018, and the school had its fears confirmed when the 2019-20 school year began in September with 31 international students, down from 49 two years before and 40 last year.
China is responsible for much of the drop. Traditionally among the world’s leaders in sending its high school students to the U.S., China has begun discouraging the practice. Plus, the number of schools across the country that seek foreign students has increased over the last three years, creating more competition.
George Stevens now expects a lower international student enrollment of 30 to 40 students each year going forward, Seeley said.
“I never suspected it would be such a dropoff as it turned out to be,” Seeley said.
He agreed that the school should have informed area towns sooner, and he promised more financial transparency in the future.
George Stevens’ international program was established in 2006 to eliminate the need for town tuition hikes, to offset declines in the area’s student population and to bridge the gap between the state-mandated tuition for local students and the actual cost of educating each student, said Seeley, who became the school’s headmaster five years ago.
The towns pay a set amount, $11,759, in tuition per student. That’s about 80 percent of the total cost of education, which is $14,646 per student, according to a two-page outline the school sent the towns.
Seeley will continue to brief local town and school leaders. On Monday, he will meet with Castine’s selectmen at 4 p.m. and Sedgwick’s school board at 5:30 p.m. He will meet with Surry’s selectmen at 7 p.m. on Tuesday.
Seeley hopes to unveil detailed financial data on the tuition increase for the first time when he meets with School Union 93 at Penobscot Community School at 7 p.m. on Dec. 18, he said.
“Whatever happens, we’re going to come to a sustainable financial situation,” Seeley said. “It’s the school boards who are the ones who build the budgets but we understand that the budget, ultimately, for the towns, is in the [selectmen’s] purview. And we absolutely want to keep them in the loop.”