Originally published in Castine Patriot, May 11, 2023 and The Weekly Packet, May 11, 2023
GSA administration holds public forum
Concerned community members speak directly to trustees
Lucy Clews, a member of the student-led organization Save Our School GSA, speaks to the interim head of school and the board of trustees. “We need students working with the board,” she stated. Clews expressed a concern raised by several students that they are the last ones to hear about decisions that directly affect them and that they have no opportunity to provide input.
by Will Robinson
“We are all here for the same reasons—you care for this school as much as we do,” said Shelley Jackson, the interim head of school at George Stevens Academy, to the small crowd of teachers, parents, students and members of the public in the GSA cafeteria. On Monday, May 8, the board of trustees and Jackson hosted a public forum about the recent budget deficit and subsequent layoffs. The trustees introduced themselves, gave a short presentation on finances, then opened the floor for a Q&A.
Ten of the 12 members of the GSA board of trustees were in attendance. Amy Baker, Alden Blodgett, Bill Case, Prudy Heilner, Tyler Knowles, Susan Loomis, Robyn Sealander and Zoë Tenney sat at the front of the cafeteria with Jackson. Attending via video call was board chair Sally Mills and Sara Ardrey Becton.
Completing the financial picture
The largest item on the agenda was a presentation by accounting consultant Rachel Grivois, who’s been working with the school for over a year on its budget.
The number of day students, she said, drops from more than 270 to fewer than 250 over the next five years, decreasing the tuition revenue. The number of boarding students, which previously brought in the profits needed to cover budget gaps, has dropped as well.
Additionally, according to Grivois, GSA has been “using cash but not replenishing it for the past five years” and currently has little to no cash in reserve. The decrease in revenue combined with the lack of reserves meant the board had to turn to cutting expenses.
Grivois also explained the role of the school’s endowment in the financial picture. A member of the public asked if money will be pulled from the endowment to help cover the budget gaps. Any money donated to the endowment, Grivois said, is restricted money that cannot be spend outright. Current GSA policy, in line with state law, is to draw only 5 percent per year from the endowment.
When asked why the board hasn’t been “waving the red flag” for the past five years, Tenney replied, “We felt like we had a lot of levers to pull and we were pulling on them as hard as we could.”
Tenney explained that, through great effort from the board, the GSA budget has been balanced in the past. This year, she said, they increased and met fundraising goals, focused on bringing in students to raise tuition revenue, temporarily halted spending and asked for supplemental tuition from sending towns.
“We thought that if we can just do all these things we could get through,” Tenney said.
Trustee Amy Baker commented that even if the board succeeded in their efforts, they still would have to reduce expenses as the number of students dropped.
“If we could do it all over again, we could’ve looked farther ahead,” Baker said. “We were so busy looking at the trees that we didn’t see the whole forest.”
When asked what GSA will be doing to raise funds going forward, Grivois said “all options are being considered.”
Tenney added that a full appraisal of all of GSA’s property has been completed and there are several parcels that are not contiguous with the campus that are being considered for sale.
When the floor opened for public comment, Blue Hill resident and parent Jen Traub expressed concern over the well being of the students now that there are fewer administrators and teachers to support them. She asked the board what the next school year will look like, considering the cuts to student services.
Jackson replied simply, “I don’t know.”
She said the plan for next year is still being worked out and emphasized giving an upfront and honest answer to the question.
The decision was made, she added, to rehire three teaching positions, one each in the English, history and arts departments.
David Stearns, GSA’s dean of curriculum, said that the rehires were made to reflect the reality of the class schedule. While it was mathematically possible, he said, for the teachers to maintain the current workload, the cuts did not reflect the reality of the situation.
Jackson said the goal of the cuts was to preserve things as best they could, but “for everything we add we have to find something we can live without.”
Jo Barrett, a former Blue Hill school board member, said there was “a crisis of confidence, peninsula wide,” in the board of trustees.
She urged the board to “do something that is going to build confidence in the community again.”
Of the students in attendance, several stood and said they felt cutting the staff was a significant blow to student morale.
“I wouldn’t be graduating in a month if it weren’t for some of these teachers, stated a GSA senior.
Specifically, some students were frustrated with the decision to cut both the assistant head of school and the dean of students in order to combine them into a single position. They praised assistant head of school Rebecca Gratz, saying she goes above and beyond to support struggling students.
Interim head of school Jackson said she was not privy to how the choices were made, but that combining the positions was part of the move to “start behaving like a smaller school.”
Lucy Clews, a member of the student-led organization Save Our School GSA, asked, “Why is there this disconnect between the student body and the board?”
Trustee Tyler Knowles said members of the student body recently spoke at a board meeting and the board values their input. She expressed interest in deepening the relationship between the board and the students at future meetings.
Several members of the public praised the decision to hire Shelley Jackson as the interim head of school.
“Bringing in Shelley Jackson was good idea number one,” said Jo Barrett.
Martin Conte, an English teacher and GSA alumni, said Jackson was one of the reasons he signed his contract for next year.
The other reason, Conte explained, is that he feels confident the board of trustees is working to rectify the “lack of faith and trust” that has developed following the crisis.
Speaking to the crowd, he said, “Next year is scary but you should be assured that the faculty and staff are nothing if not 100 percent dedicated to the students.”
Conte said he is starting a new initiative to bring in community volunteers to help specifically in advancement, admissions, boarding life and extra circular activities. These areas, he said, are going to need the extra effort following the cuts to administration staff.
Jackson commented in a later interview, “Parent engagement is always important, and this feels like the perfect time to try to build stronger connections. The more you’re in the school, the more you see its magic.”
After the forum, Jackson said she was pleased with “the range of people who attended and with the obvious concern for the school. I heard more interest in support and problem solving than in accusations and criticism.”
When asked if this was the first in a series of forums sponsored by GSA, Jackson replied, “We want to be responsive to what the community needs; we can’t improve GSA without it.”
Tenney said of the meeting, “In terms of the overall tone, my own impression was that the questions were excellent, the feedback was very much constructive, and was offered by people who clearly care deeply about the school. Everyone was respectful and civil. It was a privilege to be able to be there and hear directly from the community.”
Chrissy Allen, a community member who attended, said the meeting was civil but that many people left feeling their questions had not been fully answered.