2016-03-18 / Front Page

Arundel launches withdrawal process

Selectmen accept petition to pull out of RSU 21
By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

Diane Robbins, standing, a former school board member, addresses Arundel selectmen Monday following the board’s acceptance of a petition that will start the process of withdrawing the town from RSU 21. (Duke Harrington photo) Diane Robbins, standing, a former school board member, addresses Arundel selectmen Monday following the board’s acceptance of a petition that will start the process of withdrawing the town from RSU 21. (Duke Harrington photo) ARUNDEL — Selectmen in Arundel accepted a petition Monday to start the process toward a potential pullout from RSU 21.

That triggers a vote on whether to fund a study committee, a decision that will probably go before voters at the annual town meeting in June. Selectmen are expected to set the appropriation for the question at no more than $40,000, although the exact figure will be decided at a later date. Selectman Thomas Danylik said the town would probably have to issue an RFP (request for proposal) in order to get a handle on the likely costs involved.

If voters agree to raise the required funds, a final vote on withdrawal will probably come at the general election in November. State law stipulates that in order for a withdrawal vote to be valid, voter participation must equal at least half (plus one) of the number who voted in the 2012 gubernatorial election, or 991 people. Selectmen agreed that, with a presidential choice on the ballot, November marks the best chance of meeting that requirement.

The withdrawal move marks Arundel’s second attempt since 2012 to leave a school district many residents claim they were “forced” to join as part of a statewide school unit consolidation push in 2009.

The current effort was spurred by a Feb. 1 school board meeting, at which a policy change was introduced that would end busing for high school students in Arundel who choose to attend Thornton Academy (TA). Meanwhile, Superintendent Katie Hawes said the district would also stop busing Arundel middle school students to Thornton Academy Middle School (TAMS) at the end of the school year.

High school students in Arundel have a choice of whether to attend Kennebunk High School or TA. That option will remain. However, Arundel’s middle school students have all attended TAMS since 2006, when the town discontinued its local program for grades 6-8. Instead the town contracted with TA, which created TAMS on the condition of Arundel signing a 10-year contract.

After Arundel merged with the former SAD 71 towns of Kennebunk and Kennebunkport to form RSU 21 in 2009, the new district moved to take back the Arundel middle schoolers, but TA successfully sued to keep its contract with Arundel in force.

That contract expires June 30 and almost everyone, Hawes included, had been operating under the assumption – reportedly based on the ruling of an arbiter in the 2009 case – that school choice would be the order of the day ever afterward, with parents able to send their students to TAMS or the Middle School of the Kennebunks, as they saw fit.

However, after first sending a flier home with fifth-grade students asking parents to declare which school their children will attend next year, SAD 21 solicited an opinion on school choice from its attorney, Richard Spencer, from the Portland firm of Drummond Woodsum. Spencer replied that because Arundel middle-schoolers, unlike their high school counterparts, have never had school choice – all have attended TAMS since before RSU 21 was formed – they are not guaranteed choice in the future.

That opinion was posted to the RSU 21 website on Feb. 16 and, two days later, resulted in submission of a withdrawal petition at the Arundel town office. However, of those 239 signatures, only 111 were collected that month.

The balance dated as far back as 2014 and previous false starts at a second withdrawal effort. With 198 signatures required to initiate the withdrawal process, there was a brief legal question about the so-called staleness of the names signed to the petition. After all, as town clerk Simone Boissonneault noted, she’d had to invalidate some names because signers had since moved out of town, while, in one case, the signer had passed away.

But petitioners resolved the issue before Town Manager Keith Trefethen could get a legal opinion on how old petition signatures can be and still be considered valid. On Feb. 29, a new patch of 168 signatures was turned in. All of those names were valid, Boissonneault said, adding that most belonged to people who’d signed in 2014 and 2015, who simply reaffirmed their intentions.

At Monday’s meeting, selectmen said that regardless of how they may feel about the withdrawal question personally, they were bound to honor the petition.

“I don’t think we have a choice,” Selectman Daniel Dubois said.

About 60 people attended Monday’s selectboard meeting, and, after being denied permission to speak until after the board’s 5-0 vote, chewed up more than two hours debating the merits of withdrawal.

“This is an important issue. This is really, really important,” Jaye Woods said. “I don’t understand how so many people could be under the same impression that we were going to have school choice for this to even be happening right now.

“Nobody wants to be going through this,” Woods said. “Nobody wants to do a withdrawal committee. Nobody wants to spend $35,000. My 10-year-old said to me, it’s simple, why don’t the kids who want to go to Kennebunk go to Kennebunk, and why don’t the kids who want to go to TA go to TA? And you know what it comes down to money. Money, money, money. And, unfortunately, I don’t trust the RSU.”

“I think she is exactly right, that this all boils down to money,” replied John Bell. “As a fairly elderly taxpayer on a fixed income, money is very, very important. I don’t see how we can withdraw from the RSU without incurring a very, very heavy increase in our property taxes. Quite frankly, I’m strapped trying to pay what I’ve got to pay now. I can’t afford an increase so that you’re child can have this option.”

Bell said he was confident middle schoolers can get a quality education at MSK, but others in the audience said they moved to town specifically to have TA as an educational option.

Meanwhile, the question of the $56.5 million building renovation bond approved by RSU 21 voters last June cast a pall over the room.

A number of people noted that under the current cost sharing formula among the three RSU 21 towns, Arundel taxpayers are only scheduled to pay about $4.9 million toward the $8.6 million being spent to rebuild the Mildred L. Day Elementary School. What will come of that deal if townspeople vote to go it alone remains an unknown – one Woods said needs to be addressed.

“We’ve got people saying this is going to bankrupt the town, and we’ve got others saying we could actually make out a little better on this and take back control,” she said, adding, “I want to know the facts. I want to know the numbers. I want to know how this town would survive without it [RSU 21] and what the benefits would be of staying in it.”

But Bell countered that those numbers were run in 2012, when the town spent about $25,000 on the last withdrawal study. The results, he predicted, will be the same in any new research.

“We’re not going to come up with some magical set of numbers that says we can do it cheaper by sending these kids to Thornton,” he said. “I’m sorry, but it’s not going to happen.”

Bell, like other in the audience, complained that the withdrawal drive is coming too soon, given that the school board has yet to decide how, or if, it will fund busing to TA and TAMS next year.

That discussion was scheduled to be taken up at an RSU 21 policy committee meeting on March 16, after the deadline for this week’s Post. It will then go before the full school board at its next meeting on March 21.

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

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