2016-02-26 / Front Page

New RSU 21 withdrawal effort launched

Move follows overtures by RSU 21 to end transportation to Thornton Academy, school choice for middle schoolers
By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

RSU 21 Superintendent Katie Hawes, flanked by Thornton Academy Headmaster Rene Menard, addresses a crowd of about 75 people at the Feb. 22 meeting of the Arundel Board of Selectmen, gathered to hear about a petition submitted to withdraw the town from RSU 21. (Duke Harrington photo) RSU 21 Superintendent Katie Hawes, flanked by Thornton Academy Headmaster Rene Menard, addresses a crowd of about 75 people at the Feb. 22 meeting of the Arundel Board of Selectmen, gathered to hear about a petition submitted to withdraw the town from RSU 21. (Duke Harrington photo) ARUNDEL — About 75 people packed the Mildred L. Day Elementary School library for a selectmen’s meeting Monday night, drawn by the spectacle of a new effort to withdraw the town from RSU 21.

Residents will have to wait to find out if the first hurdle has been cleared, however. Petitioners needed to submit 198 signatures – 10 percent of the townwide vote in the most recent gubernatorial election – in order to force the question onto a town meeting ballot.

In a process most locals will be familiar with from a similar effort in 2012, the first vote, if successful, merely compels selectmen to appropriate money to fund a study into the town’s various options, if it does choose to withdraw. A subsequent vote would decide the actual question of whether to finalize the divorce.

However, while Town Clark Simone Boissonneault said she was able to validate 239 petition signatures, only 111 were dated during the most recent signature drive, prompted by school administration overtures last week to end school choice for Arundel middle schoolers.

The balance, Boissonneault said, were from prior signature drives and previous aborted efforts to break with RSU 21 following the failed effort in 2012. Simone noted that 82 of the petition signatures dated as far back as 2014. Some names were invalidated, she said, because signers had since moved out of town, or, in at least one case, had passed away.

Selectman Phil Labbe moved to reject the older signatures, which would have invalidated the petition, saying the petitioners should instead gather fresh names. “And I hope they do,” he said. However, the balance of the board preferred to wait for a legal opinion on the question of “staleness” for names submitted thus far.

The new effort to pull out of RSU 21 stems from two local initiatives pursued by the board of education.

At the Feb. 1 school board meeting, a policy change was introduced that would end busing for high school students in Arundel who choose to attend Thornton Academy in Saco, an option that existed before the RSU was formed in 2009. Meanwhile, Superintendent Katie Hawes said the district would stop busing Arundel middle school students to Thornton Academy Middle School at the end of the school year.

Arundel’s 10-year contract with Thornton Academy, which the RSU inherited when the town got appended to the former SAD 71 towns of Kennebunk and Kennebunkport during a statewide school consolidation push, ends June 30.

According to Hawes, 155 Arundel students choose to attend Thornton Academy rather than Kennebunk High School, while 128 attend Thornton Academy Middle School (TAMS) as part of the agreement Arundel signed in 2006, when the town decided it no longer had the resources to educate students in grades 6-8.

Hawes has said that an arbiter who helped settle a 2010 court case with Thornton Academy had ruled middle school students would have a choice to attend TAMS or the Middle School of the Kennebunks, once the Arundel contract with Thornton Academy expired. Earlier this year, the district sent fliers home with fifth-graders asking them which school they would attend next year.

However, Hawes said after Monday night’s meeting that the earlier guidance was not correct.

“I was wrong about that,” she said.

In a letter posted to the RSU 21 website Feb. 16, a legal opinion solicited from the Portland firm Drummond Woodsum states that Maine’s school consolidation law only preserves school choice where it existed before the 2009 mergers. That means Arundel high school students will still be able to choose where to go. However, because Arundel settled its’ middle school issues by contract – and the 2010 case proves there was no choice involved, because the courts ruled Thornton Academy would get to keep all Arundel middle school students until the contact ran out – choice does not exist for those students. For the next school year, all of those students will attend MSK, unless the school board votes on some other agreement.

“While the matter is not free from doubt in the absence of a binding judicial decision, we believe that our interpretation of the reorganization statute is supported by the plain meaning of the statutory language, the legislative history, the state’s policy to preserve school choice only where it existed in a previous education unit, the provisions of the reorganization plan, and a rule of statutory construction that protects the public interest,” wrote Richard Spencer, of Drummond Woodsum.

Hawes said a Feb. 24 school board policy meeting, at which members were to have debated the transportation question for high schools, has been canceled. The full board will now debate all of the issues involved at its March 7 meeting. Meanwhile, a Feb. 12 meeting between Hawes and Thornton Academy Headmaster Rene Menard, along with business managers from the two schools, was canceled by Hawes pending direction from RSU 21 directors.

Asked why Thornton Academy has not stepped in to offer some form of resolution, Menard said his board of trustees is not in a position to act until the RSU 21 school board makes a definitive move.

“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 Monday.

“We will continue to support Arundel families that want to continue to exercise their right to attend Thornton Academy,” Menard sad. “We don’t want to see Arundel students left in the lurch, but to be fair to the RSU, they have not made a policy change yet, so their transportation policy is still in effect. We’ll have to see what events transpire.”

However, Menard also noted that Thornton Academy does not operate its own bus fleet and does not receive any kind of transportation subsidy from the state. Still, he said that between 90 and 95 percent of TAMS students from Arundel choose to stay at Thornton Academy rather than attend Kennebunk High School, and his school is willing to prove itself the better choice for Arundel parents in direct competition with RSU 21.

But others just want the controversy decided before the next school year starts.

“To me it’s incumbent for Thornton Academy and the RSU board to work this out and decide what’s going to happen to our middle school kids next year, because I sure as heck don’t want to have to tell parents, hey, your kids who have been going to TAMS can’t go next year,” Selectman Dan Du- bois said. “That’s a huge uproot to some families.”

Of the residents who attended Monday’s meeting, opinion seemed divided, based on audience applause, to the question of withdrawal.

“During the last withdrawal process, we were assured there would still be school choice,” said Diane Robbins, a former school board meeting and reportedly a leader in the latest withdrawal effort.

Robbins questioned the timing of the legal opinion issued by Drummond Woodsum, asking why such advice was not solicited by RSU 21 during the 2012 withdrawal effort, or last year, when Kennebunkport was considering a pullout of its own.

“Instead they wait until we don’t withdraw – and now we’ve all voted on school [renovation] bonds – until they state not only are they not going to let kids go to Thornton Academy Middle School, but there will be no transportation,” she said. “That’s real hard for me to swallow knowing I sat here on this board and believed what they said, that there would always be school choice.

“As this point, I have no faith, and no trust, in the RSU 21 school board,” Robbins said.

“This is a mess. It’s a godawful mess,” said Arundel resident Sam Hall. “I just have to believe there’s a way that the school district and Thornton Academy can reason together to protect future of the children that are involved here, because withdrawal is a horrific decision. I don’t know what the answer is, but there has to be a way to allow the kids who are now in Thornton to continue in Thornton without taking the nuclear option of going through the withdrawal fight again.

“That will tear this town apart as it did last time,” Hall said. “We need to come together, not find ways to tear us apart.”

Although Hall got a round of applause for that sentiment, people gathered in the hall after the meeting were already collecting names to replace the ones signed to petition forms in 2014 and 2015. Reportedly, 18 fresh names were gathered before everyone left for the night.

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

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