2016-04-14 / News

Lawsuit is filed over school choice

Suit, filed by 12 Arundel families and TA, seeks judgment against RSU
By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — A long-simmering debate over school choice for Arundel middle school students, which already has bubbled up an attempt by local residents to withdraw their town from RSU 21, finally spilled over last week into the courts.

On Wednesday, April 6, Thornton Academy (TA), joined by 12 Arundel families, filed suit in York County Superior Court seeking a declaratory judgment against RSU 21 over the question of who gets to educate Arundel students in grades 6-8.

In 2006 TA entered into a 10-year contract with Arundel to teach the town’s middle school students, after the town decided it could no longer afford a K-8 program. That agreement resulted in the creation of Thornton Academy Middle School (TAMS). In 2009, after Arundel joined with Kennebunk and Kennebunkport to create RSU 21, TA won a suit over school choice, allowing it to keep all Arundel middle schoolers in its system, per the existing contract.

Arundel’s deal with TA ends June 30 and, after initially signaling it might compel all Arundel students in grades 6-8 to attend the Middle School of the Kennebunks (MSK) next year, the RSU 21 school board voted 8-2 at its March 7 meeting – following public outcry capped by attendance of more than 110 people at that session – to allow school choice. At least for now.

Starting next year, Arundel students now in grades 5-8 will be allowed to attend either TAMS or MSK, provided they notify RSU 21 by April 15. However, students now in fourth grade and below will only have MSK as an option when the time comes.

In its suit, TA says school choice should not end with the students now in grade 5 at Arundel’s Mildred L. Day Elementary School, but should continue in perpetuity.

“We stand with these Arundel families,” TA Headmaster Rene Menard said the day after the suit dropped. “We feel strongly that their right to continue to educate their children at TAMS is protected by law. I don’t think there’s any doubt or confusion about that. All parties for the past eight to 10 years have been well aware of this option.

“And another thing, this issue has not been dormant for the existence of the RSU, this issue has come up on numerous occasions,” Menard said. “Time and time again the community of Arundel, the RSU board, the RSU’s attorneys, selectmen, have questioned and addressed the option to attend TAMS after the contract expired, and it’s been affirmed on all sides. Our position is the same. Nothing has changed. We are confident the courts will see this issue as everybody has seen it for the last decade.”

Meanwhile, RSU Superintendent Katie Hawes said RSU 21 already has given enough, having agreed to allow Arundel residents to choose TAMS for the next three years, even though it costs more to tuition a student to Saco than it would cost to educate that same student at MSK.

One reason RSU 21 has pushed so hard to take back Arundel students is the $8,000-plus tuition paid to TAMS for each middle schooler. That’s money that, given the cost-sharing formula of the RSU, is largely covered by taxpayers in Kennebunk and Kennebunkport. So far, about a dozen Arundel parents have indicated they will send their children to MSK next year, instead of TAMS. That alone was enough to prompt Hawes to scratch $96,000 from her 2016-2017 budget proposal.

“While we are not surprised by this litigation, we stand firmly by our legal opinion,” Hawes said in an April 7 interview. “The fact that our board voted to allow existing TAMS students, and those in grade 5, to attend TAMS at public expense both exceeds the terms of the expiring contract and shows a substantial commitment to Arundel families.”

However, one positive note has been the general agreement, still being hammered out, under which TAMS might pay to continue receiving Arundel students aboard RSU 21 buses.

Hawes has said the district could save an additional $185,000 per year if it did not have to transport Arundel students to TAMS, which has no bus fleet of its own and, as a private school, receives no state subsidy for transportation.

An exact amount TAMS might pay to RSU 21 for transportation is up in the air – a $35,000 fee has been bandied about to transport high school students, who retain school choice because they enjoyed it before RSU 21 was formed. But that question was further complicated by a joint vote last week of school boards in Biddeford, Saco and Dayton to shift start times for middle and high school students back by 45 minutes, to 8:30 a.m. Trustees at Thornton Academy adopted a similar measure, to begin next fall.

The change in start times was based on research that shows teens have different natural sleep patterns than adults and adolescents, and may actually learn better if allowed to sleep later.

However, that change puts RSU 21 out of sync with TAMS, which impacts how students might be bused.

The change to an 8:30 start time for classes at TA would require RSU 21 to buy an additional bus to accommodate the Arundel enrollees, driving the expected $35,000 fee to TA up to $70,000 per year, Hawes said. The larger number of TAMS students could require as many as five extra buses, Hawes said.

Return to top