2016-03-11 / Front Page

RSU 21 supports school choice

An 8-2 vote will let students now in Grades 5-8 attend Thornton Academy Middle School
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 — It was not a exactly a barn-burner in the old-fashioned Yankee tradition – speakers were generally patient and polite – but Monday’s meeting of the RSU 21 was nothing if not a slow smolder.

About 110 area residents, mostly from Arundel, attended the session, which was moved into the Kennebunk 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 seat.

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.”

The question was prompted by a con- tract RSU 21 inherited in 2009 when it was created by the merger of Arundel with the former SAD 71, which included Kennebunk and Kennebunkport. Because Arundel does not have a high school, it has historically tuitioned those students to area districts. However, in 2006 the town decided it could no longer maintain a middle school and contracted with Thornton Academy in a deal that led to the creation of TAMS. That contract ends June 30.

The RSU 21 school board first kicked the coop on the issue at its Feb. 1 meeting. At that session, a policy change was introduced that would end busing for high school students in Arundel who choose to attend Thornton Academy. Meanwhile, Hawes said the district would stop busing Arundel middle-school students to TAMS at the end of the school year.

According to Hawes, 155 Arundel students choose to attend Thornton Academy, rather than Kennebunk High School, while 128 attend TAMS. For the middle schoolers, attending TAMS is not currently an option, a fact the courts attested to in 2010, when Thornton Academy sued to keep the Arundel students per the terms of the contract. It was widely believed an arbiter’s ruling made as a result of the lawsuit meant Arundel students would be able to choose between attending TAMS and the Middle School of the Kennebunks starting next year. And, in fact, earlier this year, RSU 21 sent fliers home with fifth-graders asking them which school they would attend next year.

But in a letter posted to the RSU 21 website Feb. 16, a legal opinion solicited from the Portland firm Drummond Woodsum claims 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.

That, coupled with the recent moves on transportation, caught many Arundel residents off guard.

“I know that when I got the email with that 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. “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 was a question over the age of some signatures, which dated to 2014, and previous withdrawal effort. 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 March 14 agenda.

Meanwhile, in a March 4 memo, Thornton Academy’s attorney, Patricia Peard, of the Portland firm Bernstein Shur, laid out a legal case for why the RSU 21 lawyer has it wrong, calling it a “Hail Mary” decision made “at the last minute” in order to make Arundel students stay in district. 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.”

At Monday’s school board meeting, Drigotas indicated early 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.

“Well 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 – disappeared into a new executive session in order to fine-tune wording of the motion.

That session 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 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 amendments 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 fourth grade 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 to 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.

Hawes said Tuesday morning she planned to speak with Menard later in the day to broach the transportation issue. That issue 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.

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

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