George Stevens Academy in Blue Hill is asking area towns to increase their funding for the school by a total of about $300,000 to help it offset a decline in revenue caused by a drop in boarding students from overseas.
It is the second year in a row that the private academy has asked local towns for extra funding to help make up for a decrease in revenue from foreign boarding students. George Stevens is overseen by a private board of trustees, but it functions as the public high school for Blue Hill, Brooklin, Brooksville, Castine, Penobscot, Sedgwick and Surry, which pay the school tuition for each student who attends.
Many schools in Maine that are publicly owned and operated often ask for and receive extra funding from their supporting towns beyond the mandated tuition rate set by the state via its Essential Programs and Services formula, said Tim Seeley, head of school for George Stevens Academy.
The additional $300,000 in tuition funding works out to about an extra $1,000 for each student, which would boost the school’s per-head tuition rate from roughly $12,000 to $13,000, Seeley said. The actual cost for educating each student at George Stevens is around $14,500, Seeley said, which is below average for the six public high schools in Hancock County but is about $2,500 more than the mandated tuition amount set by the state.
For more than a decade, Seeley said, the cost of educating local students at George Stevens was offset by the tuition it charged foreign students to enroll. The number of students it had from China, in particular, helped to defray the school’s operating costs, which in turn kept the amount of funding the academy needed from surrounding towns relatively low. In recent years, foreign students have paid as much as $52,000 per year to live and study on campus.
Three years ago, George Stevens Academy had 40 students from China who were enrolled and lived in student housing on campus. This year, Seeley said, the school has only 11 foreign students. Eight of them are on campus, and three are studying remotely from their home countries.
“We did it to the tune of millions of dollars over the past 10 to 15 years,” Seeley said of revenue from boarding foreign students.
But there now are fewer foreign students who want to enroll at the Blue Hill school — a trend that began before the COVID-19 pandemic made international travel difficult — and there is more competition for recruiting Chinese high school students, he said.
“That market has fundamentally changed,” Seeley said. “It is never going to come back.”
Even so, he is hopeful that George Stevens can increase the number of its foreign boarding students to somewhere between 20 and 30 in the next few years.
Of the seven towns the academy serves, Brooksville and Penobscot already have held votes this year and have agreed to increase the amount of money they provide to the school. Final figures for each town depend on how many students each sends to the academy in the fall, but Brooksville has agreed to pay an additional amount of roughly $32,000 to the school for the 2021-22 academic year, while Penobscot will pay between $20,000 and $30,000.
Brooksville town officials and residents were leery last year when the academy asked for increased funding because they felt like it didn’t have a good explanation for how the additional funding would be used, said Matt Freedman, chairman of Brooksville’s school committee.
Over the past year, however, the academy has been more transparent about how it spends tuition money, he said, and how it would use the additional tuition funding from surrounding towns.
“I felt they made the case for why they needed the money,” Freedman said, adding that Brooksville voters approved the extra $32,000 in funding earlier this month by an 8-1 margin. “We thought it was in the best interests of the students.”
In Brooklin, where voters on May 15 will consider raising about $30,000 more for George Stevens tuition than they did last year, town officials support the extra funding request, according to Bill Cohen, chairman of the select board. He said the town asked the academy last year for greater transparency in its budget, and has since received it.
“It’s been a good discussion,” Cohen said.
In Blue Hill, which sends more students to George Stevens than any of the other area towns, officials still have reservations about the increase, according to Shawna Ambrose, Blue Hill’s town administrator. Voters there are expected to decide on April 20 whether to raise an additional $106,000 for tuition to the academy for the 2021-22 year.
Both the town’s select board and its budget committee are recommending that the request be denied.
Last year, when the academy asked Blue Hill for $37,500 in additional funding, selectmen felt as if they didn’t have enough information about the situation and voters turned it down, Ambrose said. In the past couple of months, Blue Hill officials have met a few times with academy administrators to discuss this year’s request, and feel like some progress has been made, she said.
But “100 percent transparency still isn’t there,” Ambrose said.