2016-03-10 / Front Page

TAMS fight for Arundel averted, for now

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer


An Arundel resident addresses the RSU 21 Board of Directors during a March 7 meeting held in the Kennebunk Elementary School gymnasium that lasted nearly five hours. About 110 people attended the session with most, like the speaker, being Arundellians in favor of retaining the option to send their children to Thornton Academy Middle School, a contract deal the town reached before RSU 21 was formed, which expires June 30. (Duke Harrington photo) An Arundel resident addresses the RSU 21 Board of Directors during a March 7 meeting held in the Kennebunk Elementary School gymnasium that lasted nearly five hours. About 110 people attended the session with most, like the speaker, being Arundellians in favor of retaining the option to send their children to Thornton Academy Middle School, a contract deal the town reached before RSU 21 was formed, which expires June 30. (Duke Harrington photo) KENNEBUNK — Thornton Academy Middle School has been granted a three-year reprieve on concerns it might lose about 130 students from Arundel, thanks to a compromise vote reached Monday night by the RSU 21 Board of Directors.

About 110 area residents, mostly from Arundel, attended the school board meeting, which was moved into the Ken- nebunk Elementary School gym in order to accommodate the crowd. By the time the meeting ended at 11:25 p.m., nearly five hours after it was gaveled into session, about 50 hearty souls still held their seats.

For their trouble, they were treated to a slow slog though legalese, as the board tried to hammer out a motion that would satisfy most of those present. In the end, the school board voted 8-2 to allow Arundel students now enrolled at Thornton Academy Middle School (TAMS) to finish out their middle school careers at the Saco private school. In addition, students from Arundel, regardless of which RSU 21 school they currently attend, will get to go to TAMS if a parent or guardian commits in writing to that option, before April 15.

“I am pleased with the actions of the RSU 21 school board last evening,” Superintendent Katie Hawes said Tuesday morning. “The fact they are willing to expend $1 million next year to allow students who are currently attending TAMS, and Arundel fifth graders to complete their middle school education at TAMS, shows a substantial commitment to the people of Arundel and highlights their desire to avoid disrupting the education of individual students during this transition.”

Currently, all middle school students in Arundel are tuitioned to TAMS by RSU 21, which inherited an agreement between the town and the Saco private school when the district was created in 2009 as part of a statewide school consolidation drive. Because Arundel does not have a high school, it has historically sent those students to area schools, including Thornton Academy. However, in 2006 the town decided it could no longer maintain a middle school and contracted with TA in a deal that led to the creation of TAMS.

That contract ends June 30 and, after making overtures that it might discontinue busing Arundel students to Saco, RSU 21 on Feb. 16 circulated a legal opinion solicited from the Portland firm Drummond Woodsum, claiming Maine’s school consolidation law only preserves school choice where it existed before the 2009 mergers.

When RSU 21 was created by appending Arundel onto SAD 71, which served Kennebunk and Kennebunkport, Thornton Academy sued to keep the Arundel middle school students at TAMS, per the terms of its contract with the town. It won that suit. However, because that has meant Arundel middle school students lack school choice — all have attended TAMS since 2006 — RSU 21’s attorney, Richard Spencer, argued they could be forced to stay in district and enrolled at the Middle School of the Kennebunks (MSK) starting next year.

Based on an arbiter’s ruling made as a result of the TA lawsuit, it was widely believed Arundel students would be able to choose between attending TAMS and MSK once the current contract expires. In fact, earlier this year, RSU 21 sent fliers home with Arundel fifth-graders asking parents to indicate which school they would attend next year.

In a March 4 memo, TA’s attorney, Patricia Peard, of the Portland firm Bernstein Shur, called the legal opinion obtained by RSU 21 a “Hail Mary” decision made “at the last minute” in order to “assert a right to make all of the middle school students in Arundel attend MSK starting in September.”

TA Headmaster Rene Menard sent that opinion to Arundel families along with a promise to continue “educating every [Arundel] middle school and high school student who chooses to attend TAMS/TA next fall and into the future.”

“Let me be clear, our position is the same — the law has not changed. We firmly believe Arundel students still have choice and, until we’re told otherwise, that will be our position.” Menard said at a Feb. 22 selectmen’s meeting in Arundel.

According to Hawes, 155 Arundel students choose to attend Thornton Academy, rather than Kennebunk High School, while 128 attend TAMS. RSU 21 administrators feel they can educate those students in district for less than it costs to send them to TA and TAMS, Hawes said, potentially saving upward of $2 million in regular and special education instruction, as well as $215,000 on busing costs.

For that reason, the school district recently launched an effort to facilitate joint programming between the Kennebunk and Arundel recreation departments, in hopes that if youngsters in Arundel have made friends in Kennebunk, they won’t want to be separated by attending TAMS once they reach middle school.

However, while that move has flown under the radar, recent overtures to reclaim the Arundel students, and to end busing of high school students who will retain school choice, caught may locals off guard.

“I know that when I got that email with the legal opinion, I think that, like most members on the board, I was caught completely off guard,” school board member Frank Drigotas, of Kennebunk, told audience members at Monday’s meeting. “And if I was caught off guard, I can only imagine how the people of Arundel felt when they learned this.”

Exactly how Arundel residents felt may be gleaned from a petition submitted to their town office to withdraw from RSU 21. An initial petition was submitted Feb. 18 but there were questions over the age of some signatures, which dated to 2014 and previous withdrawal efforts. Arundel voters declined to pull out of RSU 21 in 2012 by a slim 125-vote margin. Petitioners quickly gathered fresh names and submitted a new petition on Feb. 29. Arundel Town Manager Keith Trefethen has said that petition is on the selectmen’s agenda to March 14.

At Monday’s school board meeting, Drigotas indicated early on that he intended to move in favor of retaining school choice.

“My litmus test has always been, if I had to explain this to my kid who may be in the fifth or sixth grade, would they understand it, or would they think I was just being an idiot,” Drigotas said. “For that reason I am going to tell the people in this audience right now, I don’t need to hear you, and I hope the people on this board don’t need to hear you, to at least make a compromise on this, because it makes sense, and if they don’t, we’ve got bigger problems, I’ll tell you that right now.”

However, telescoping his intention so early in the meeting, while board questioning of its attorney was underway and before the public had been given a chance to speak, drew the ire of Drigotas’ fellow Kennebunk director, Brad Huot, in what was really the only tense moment of the meeting, which was otherwise a long slog through legalese.

“While I respect Mr. Drigotas’ opinion, I think that’s getting a little ahead of ourselves, and setting up anyone who might dissent with that opinion to sort of be put in a bad situation,” Huot said.

Following a stream of residents who stumped for retaining school choice, Jeffrey Cole, of Kennebunk, moved to allow choice to continue for current middle school students. At that point, the board — which had started the 30-minute meeting in a closed-door consultation with its attorney — entered another executive session, in order to fine tune wording of the motion.

That secret meeting lasted about 40 minutes. On the way out the door, school board Chairman Maureen King responded to a question from the audience about whether board members would discuss the outstanding transportation question in private. King said no, the board would only discuss the motion on the table. However, when the board returned to open session, its attorney, Richard Spencer, of the Portland firm Drummond Woodsum, brought along wording relating to funding of transportation of Arundel students to Saco. It was among a number of draft motions he prepared in advance, he said, in anticipation of the school board’s decision.

Still, the board never got to that issue, agreeing as the midnight hour approached to put it off until a later date. That decision was prompted by a host of amendments to the main motion, almost all of which were rejected by the full board. Most of the proposed edits came from school board member Catherine Rush of Arundel.

Among other things, Rush moved at one point to extend school choice to Arundel students now enrolled in kindergarten through Grade 4 to attend TAMS if older siblings are already enrolled there. At one point, Rush even moved to simply give all Arundel students school choice in perpetuity. However, a motion to allow students who may leave TAMS at some point return was modified into a line that will allow Hawes to make spot decisions “with good cause.”

In the end, Rush and Huot voted against the decision to grant school choice, between MSK and TAMS, to Arundel students currently in Grades 5-8.

Meanwhile, it appears TA will have to fight for the right to enroll Arundel public school students now in Grades K-4, and those who will come after. However, Menard has indicated he will not be shy about waging that war, in the classroom and in the courts.

“Starting next year, every student who attends TAMS will be doing so by choice,” he said following the Feb. 22 Arundel selectmen’s meeting. “Our directors take our mission very seriously and we are up to the challenge of making sure we are a place parents and students will want to be.”

“Our attorneys are confident Arundel families may continue to access the educational opportunities that were in existence prior to the formation of RSU 21,” Menard wrote in a March 4 letter to parents. “We fully support your legal right to exercise the middle and high school choice options provided to you by law.”

Hawes said Tuesday morning she planned to speak with Menard later in the day to broach question over who will provide transportation to TAMS. Medard has noted that Thornton Academy does not maintain a bus fleet, and does not receive any school subsidy from the state for transportation costs.

That busing issue, including a possible policy change that will end the busing by RSU 21 of Arundel high school students to TA, will be taken up at the next SAD 21 policy committee meeting — at 7:30 a.m. on March 16 — and then at the next full school board meeting on March 21.

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