BLUE HILL, Maine — George Stevens Academy has cut in half the tuition increase it seeks next year from the seven Hancock County towns that send students to the private high school.
In a letter sent to the seven towns Friday morning and at a meeting with leaders from the seven towns in Blue Hill later in the day, academy officials discussed having the towns pay $300 per student for the 2020-2021 school year on top of the state-mandated tuition they’ve traditionally paid. Under the previous tuition hike proposal, George Stevens requested an additional $597 per student next school year as part of a total tuition increase of about $2,700 per student spread over three years.
“This does not solve the problem, but it’s a way to come to some agreement for next year,” Head of School Tim Seeley said after the nearly two-hour meeting at Blue Hill’s town office. “It’s being offered in recognition that the full amount we need is too much to reasonably ask the taxpayers in a single year, and that the mechanics of seven different towns coming to an agreement with us on the same thing are very tricky.”
George Stevens seeks the increase to close an $800,000 budget gap it expects because of a drop in its international student enrollment. That enrollment two years ago, 49 students, fell to 40 last year and to 31 students this year who pay annual tuition of as much as $52,000 to study and stay on campus.
With the enrollment drop, the international student program now nets about an $800,000 surplus, compared to a $1.6 million surplus two years ago, academy officials said.
Seeley said that under the new plan, the academy would finish the 2020-21 year with a deficit of $100,000 to $200,000, but it is willing to absorb the loss to help local officials get up to speed on the school’s finances.
The new proposal would add the $300 to the insured value factor included with the tuition, a fee charged in recognition of the fact that private schools such as George Stevens educate public students without receiving tax dollars for the construction or renovation of their buildings. The addition of the amount to the insured value factor would allow school boards to incorporate the increase into their budgets without having to seek voter approval at town meetings this spring, and the deficit would be reduced by tuition increases in the following two years, Seeley said.
In the interim, school leaders said, George Stevens would draw on outside philanthropy, its endowment and, potentially, interim bank financing to balance the budget.
When they were first briefed on the academy’s budget gap in early December, leaders from the towns — Blue Hill, Brooklin, Brooksville, Castine, Penobscot, Sedgwick and Surry – said that they needed more time to plan for the increase. They had just begun budgeting for the 2020-21 fiscal year, which begins on July 1, and were leery of seeking more money from voters, they said.
Town leaders at Friday’s meeting reiterated those fears before agreeing that they needed to form a committee to get a better understanding of the school’s finances. Brooklin Selectman David Reiley said he was encouraged by the new proposal.
“It’s a big change from a month ago, when the demand seemed overwhelming and very sudden,” Reiley said. “I think they realized that their initial rolling out of the idea was abrupt and hard to understand, and I think they’re working overtime to make it much more easily addressed by the surrounding towns.”
It remains unclear exactly how much tuition would increase in the second and third years of the new proposal. Under the original proposal, the tuition increase that the towns would pay out of their local school budgets would have grown from $597 per student to $1,158 per student the following year. The increase in the third year would have been $945 per student for the 2022-23 school year. After that, tuition would rise by the same percentage as the state-set tuition for private high schools that serve public-school students.
For a Blue Hill taxpayer who owns a $100,000 home, the $300 increase requested for next year would work out to a $6 property tax increase.