Chelsea Elementary School is one of the five schools that make up Regional School Unit 12. The district does not have a high school and is grappling with the increased cost of sending students to other schools for secondary education. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

SOMERVILLE — Officials at the Somerville-based school district that does not have a high school are grappling with the rising cost of sending students to other secondary schools. 

The district — Regional School Unit 12 — is one of a handful across Maine that uses the “school choice” model, meaning taxpayers pay for students to attend their choice of public or private school, at a cost set by the state. This is because the district does not operate its own for certain grade levels.

The concept is core to RSU 12, which officials say formed around the idea of offering school choice. Students — who live in Chelsea, Alna, Somerville, Westport Island, Palermo, Windsor and Whitefield — typically end up going to Wiscasset High School, Erskine Academy in China, Cony High School in Augusta or Gardiner Area High School.

But that choice has an outsized impact on next year’s budget.

The per-student cost of high school tuition has increased by about 3% each of the last nine years, according to Superintendent Howie Tuttle. This year, he said that cost went up by 6%. 

“That has not happened since I’ve been here,” said Tuttle, who became the district’s superintendent in 2013.


Whereas the district typically budgets about$150,000 for increases to high school tuition, this year the district is budgeting $435,783, which Tuttle said increases the total amount it expects to spend on high school tuition by about 8%.  He did not respond by press time to an inquiry seeking to confirm the total amount budgeted for high school tuition, but budget documents show it accounts for over 20% of the district’s spending — more than any other area.

The total proposed budget for the district is $26,400,098, up 3.2% from the current year.

“Having a school choice does cost more,” Tuttle said at a recent school board meeting. “You don’t have the control to change the budget like you can in a high school. If there is a tough budget year where not many kids take basket-weaving, you can cut the class, or course, or reduce a teacher. Things you can do to cut the costs, but we don’t have that ability here. We just have to pay the price tag.”   

He told the school board the district could “easily” run a high school for the amount of money it takes to tuition out students.   

But Board Chair Sandra Devaney said having the ability to choose the high school that is best for a child drives families to the district and was important to its founders.

“One of the major forces of the district is the ability to have school choice,” she said. “It makes the district unique. Some people ask about building a high school in the district, but if you look at the people who founded (the district), one of their things was to keep school choice, but it is an expensive one.”  


The state calculates tuition rates for each school by dividing certain expenditures by the number of students enrolled. It uses those figures to determine the average cost of educating a student in Maine, which is the maximum amount a municipality or school district is responsible for reimbursing other public schools. Sending districts must either pay the tuition of the receiving school or the state’s maximum allowable tuition rate —  $12,558 per student for the upcoming year — whichever is less.   

Private schools can charge 10% more than the public school maximum, and 60/40 schools, where about 60% of students are funded through public tuition, can charge 6% more.

For RSU 12 to send a student to Cony High School next year, for example, it will cost $10,254, whereas sending a student to Wiscasset High School costs the state maximum of $12,558. Erskine Academy, a 60/40 school in China, is charging $13,311 per student.

“Depending on where the student goes, we are paying different tuition rates,” Tuttle told the school board. “But overall, the maximum allowable tuition rate drives everything, and that went up 6%.”   

A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows students to select private religious schools as part of school choice, is not expected to have a severe impact on the upcoming year’s budget. So far, the Maine Department of Education has only approved one private religious high school — Cheverus High School in Portland — for students to attend at the cost of taxpayers. Tuttle said no RSU 12 students have signaled interest in attending that school, which is about an hour away. Cheverus charges $10,722 per student. 

The application process for private schools opens on July 1, according to the state’s education agency, and if approved, students could attend beginning in the upcoming school year. That could mean options closer to RSU 12 will become available, such as Wiscasset Christian Academy and Pine Tree Academy in Freeport. It is not yet clear how much tuition at those schools would cost taxpayers.

There will be a presentation on the budget at Chelsea Elementary School at 6 p.m. Thursday, during the school board’s next regular meeting, followed by a districtwide budget meeting May 24.

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