2016-02-05 / Front Page

Busing proposal draws criticism

By Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — Residents of Arundel, who have continued to enjoy school choice since the creation of RSU 21 in 2009, say they feel taken for a ride by the school district, which is floating a plan to stop busing students to other districts.

Arundel’s 10-year contract with Thornton Academy, which the RSU inherited when the town was appended to the former SAD 71 towns of Kennebunk and Kennebunkport during a statewide school consolidation push, ends June 30. At Monday’s school board meeting, Superintendent Katie Hawes said RSU 21 would stop busing Arundel middle school students to Thornton Academy Middle School as soon as that agreement expires.

However, the district’s transportation policy specifically addresses high school students. Up for consideration at the Feb. 1 school board meeting was a recommendation of the board’s policy subcommittee to eliminate a line that promises to bus Arundel high school students to “area high schools” with at least 15 enrollees from the town.

Since the policy was adopted, enrollment of Arundel students at Biddeford High School has dropped below 15 students, leaving just Thornton Academy as a school choice destination.

According to Hawes, 155 Arundel students choose to attend Thornton Academy, rather than Kennebunk High School, while 128 have selected Thornton Academy Middle School (TAMS) over Middle School of the Kennebunks (MSK).

Hawes said RSU 21 buses cover 475 miles per day transporting Arundel students back and forth to Saco, at a net cost of more than $214,600 per year. The net cost, she said, calculated by Business Administrator Bruce Randolph, factors in the cost of busing those same students to Kennebunk schools, making the figure the difference in savings from ending the current busing policy.

“That is strictly our dime,” school board Chairman Maureen King said of the cost.

King also pointed out that within the past week, RSU administrators have been advised to expect an $875,000 cut next year in the district’s state subsidy for education.

“So, with the transportation, that’s $1 million,” King said, painting a picture of the hole RSU 21 can expect to start in as it begins budgeting for the 2016-2017 school year – a year that already promises a 7.5 percent spike, based on the first $2 million payment on a $56.5 million school renovation bond, agreed to by voters last June, and a $1.3 million, 3.2 percent hike in school salaries.

At a Jan. 7 joint meeting between the school board and selectmen from the three RSU towns, Hawes said the best long-term prospect for saving money for all concerned is to try and work on ways to convince more Arundel students to attend MSK instead of TAMS when they leave the Mildred L. Day Elementary School. Toward that end, talks have begun between the RSU and recreation programs from Arundel and Kennebunk to merge programs, in hopes that if Arundel youngsters form friendships with kids from Kennebunk at a young age, they may be more likely to choose staying in district when the time comes, rather than transferring to TAMS.

Arundel entered a 10-year contract with Thornton Academy in 2006 and, when RSU 21 was created in 2009, an arbitrator ruled Arundel students would retain choice, even after the contract ends June 30.

Hawes says it costs $7,400 to tuition each Arundel student to Thornton Academy for a total of $2.4 million given about 40 students per grade level in grades 6-12. That expense, and the $214,600 in busing, comes off the top of the RSU budget, based on the district’s cost-sharing formula, Hawes said, meaning Kennebunk and Kennebunkport taxpayers cover 87 percent of the costs to educate Arundel students at Thornton Academy.

“I applaud your looking to cost cutting,” Arundel Selectman Dan Dubois told the school board Monday night, “but there’s a lot of tradition of Arundel families going to Thornton Academy, and I don’t want to take that away from them.”

Arundel resident Diane Robbins, a former member of the school board, was even more direct, referencing a 2012 attempt by Arundel residents to pull out of RSU 21, an effort that failed by a slim 1,169-to-1,044 margin.

“Through all the withdrawal meetings, with all of the promises that were made, to now do this, it’s just wrong,” she said. “None of this was discussed during the withdrawal meetings. Everything was, you will always have school choice, everything will remain the same. Well, that was wrong.

“School choice without transportation is not really school choice for many families,” Robbins said.

However, King stressed that Monday’s vote was only a first reading of the proposal, and not the final word. She also cut off Robbins when the latter tried to say the school board had already decided to make it difficult for Arundel students to attend a nearby private school.

“The board has not decided that, the contract is what decided that,” King said. “We have not taken a vote on that.”

“We can sit here and we can split hairs, but school choice, that’s what we have been doing for decades, and there has always been transportation,” Robbins said. “This is fundamentally not fair. And while you can say this has to do with the contract, my feeling is that you don’t like kids going to Thornton Academy.

“For a [school] board that has said you’re all about what is best for the kids, I just don’t see this as being best for the kids,” Robbins said.

Robbins also pointed out that Thornton Academy does not have a bus fleet of its own to pick up the slack, while Dubois urged school board members to wait until Thornton’s board of directors decides how it might transport Arundel students before ending the RSU service. Hawes said talks are underway, but the Thornton board has not yet made a decision.

“We are going to work with Thornton Academy and TAMS to make sure busing is available, it’s just not coming from us,” said King.

The policy committee will address the issue at its next meeting, at 7:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 24, at Kennebunk Elementary School. Hawes said she hoped to bring the policy to a final reading at the school board’s February meeting, but King said the policy committee needed to consider the issue further, hopefully by that time with some insight on how, or if, Thornton Academy might step in to transport its Arundel students.

Instead, the final vote on the policy change will take place at the March 7 school board meeting.

Peter Fellenz, one of three school board members from Kennebunkport, tried to put off that vote by moving to table the question. Doing so, he said, would “send the clearest signal that no decision has been made.”

Soothing fears that the policy change was a “done deal” was important, Fellenz and others on the board said, because the suggestion alone had clearly raised hackles.

That much was made clear by Kennebunk school board member Frank Drigotas.

“I’ve never had a topic in my five and a half years on this board where people texted me on my phone during the meeting about it. So, obviously, there’s some emotion around this,” he said.

Catherine Rush, a school board member from Arundel, said she also had received an email on her smartphone, presumably sent by someone in the audience, during the meeting.

However, only one school hoard member sided with Fellenz’ motion to table the question, which fell in a 2-8 vote. Kennebunk director Brad Huot them moved to bring the question to vote, but his peers proved they had not yet talked themselves out, rejecting that call to vote 4-6.

That being the case, Huot was first to continue the debate, calling any possibility of continuing to bus Arundel students to Saco, “not fiscally responsible.” Huot said RSU 21 has, since its formation, “done yeoman’s work” to improve Arundel’s Mildred L. Day Elementary School. The upcoming building renovations, set to kick off at Mildred Day with a March 8 groundbreaking, followed in April by crews starting work at Kennebunk High School and Kennebunkport Consolidated School.

“I’m not sure why this is our responsibility and why we need to take the public hit for this,” he said. “I find this to be a Thornton Academy issue and I disagree vehemently that we are somehow leaving Arundel students in the lurch when we are creating stellar schools in this district that they can go to.”

Still, while be preached cool heads and collaboration, Jack Reetz, a former school board member from Arundel who now sits on the district’s master facilities planning committee said, “If kids choose to go to Kennebunk High School, I would hope it’s because they want to go there, not because they are forced to go there by virtue of cutting off busing.”

“I don’t think you can conflate school choice and transportation as one issue,” agreed Kennebunk school board member Jeffrey Cole.

“This is another symptom of an education marriage that never should have been made,” Cole said. “We were forced into this by the state. It was only through economic extortion that this marriage happened. We all know that.”

On that note, Drigotas said he “would never” vote to close Kennebunk’s Sea Road Elementary School, an option currently under consideration by the facilities committee, while paying nearly a quarter-million dollars to bus student to a private school.

Referencing the $3 million Thornton Academy now collects in tuition for its Arundel students, paid by RSU 21, King said it should be willing to pick up the busing job.

“I hope they’ll look at what that [money] means and work with us on a way to make that [busing] happen,” she said. “I think Thornton Academy needs to hear from parents and I think they need to take some ownership of this process as well. After all, it is not a small amount of money. It’s a large amount of money. I can’t see them wanting to throw that away.”

“My first reaction was, if they want the kids, they can pay for busing,” Drigotas agreed, adding, “The one thing I’ve been thinking about that’s got me a little muddled, is that the residents of the town of Arundel pay taxes to the RSU and for those taxes they should get services. So, for me, I need to think about this. I’m on the fence, and that’s uncomfortable to me. I don’t like being there.”

Ultimately, Drigotas abstained from the final vote on the first reading of the policy change, which passed 8-2-1. He then got the final word.

“This is almost like a game of chicken to me, and who’s going to blink first, us or Thornton Academy,” he said. “Because the kids who want to go to Thornton Academy, there’s no way they’re not going to get bused there. It’s just a matter of who’s going to pay for it.”

Thornton Academy Headmaster Rene Menard could not be reached for comment before The Post’s Tuesday morning deadline.

Wm. Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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