2016-03-25 / Front Page

District red lines busing policy

By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — The RSU 21 Board of Directors voted 9-1 Monday night to eliminate a long-standing policy that compels it to provide transportation to high school students from Arundel whenever 15 or more enroll at someplace other than Kennebunk High School.

Arundel high schoolers have enjoyed school choice since before the town joined with Kennebunk and Kennebunkport to form RSU 21 in 2009.

Busing them to Thornton Academy in Saco – the only area school with enough Arundel students to trigger the transportation policy – could continue, depending on whether TA agrees to pay to have RSU 21 send high schoolers its way. However, that decision may hinge on votes coming April 4 at school board meetings in Biddeford and Saco to approve later starts to the school day.

If those changes are approved, TA is likely to follow suit, potentially muddying any attempt to reach an accord with RSU on the busing of its Arundel students.

Superintendent Katie Hawes said she has been in talks with TA Headmaster Rene Menard to have the private school pick up the tab to keep RSU 21 buses on the road between Arundel and TA.

That cost only comes to $35,000 above what RSU 21 would otherwise pay to transport those same students to KHS, Hawes said. That savings may not seem like much in the grand scheme of a proposed $43.5 million operating budget in RSU 21 next year. However, the first reading of the policy change at the Feb. 1 school board meeting resulted in an Arundel uprising over issues of school choice in the wake of a contract with Thornton Academy Middle School (TAMS) that ends June 30.

All Arundel middle school students have attended TAMS since 2006, when the town discontinued its local program for grades 6-8. At that time, the town contracted with TA, which created TAMS on the condition of Arundel signing a 10-year contract. After the formation of RSU 21, the new district moved to take back the Arundel middle schoolers, but TA successfully sued to keep its contract with Arundel in force. However, that contract expires June 30. The imminent end of that contract led the district’s policy committee to look at the RSU 21 transportation policy regarding high schoolers.

“One of the reasons we had it in there was because we were busing to TAMS anyway because of the contract, and that contract is ending,” said school board chairman Maureen King.

At the Feb. 1 meeting, Hawes and King both said the district planned to end busing of Arundel students to TAMS, a move that did not require a policy change. That and the proposed policy change regarding high schoolers was quickly followed on Feb. 16 by the circulation by Hawes of a legal opinion stating that after June 30, RSU 21 can force all Arundel students in grades 6-8 to enroll at the Middle School of the Kennebunks (MSK). Hawes said the belief held by many, including herself, that RSU 21 will not have to offer Arundel middle schoolers a choice between TAMS and MSK came as a surprise.

Similarly shocked were Arundel residents, some of whom said they moved to Arundel specifically because they could send their kids to TAMS.

On Feb. 29, Arundel residents submitted a petition to the town to initiate the process of withdrawing the town from RSU 21. That petition was accepted by Arundel selectmen at their March 14 meeting. A vote on whether to supply funding to a state-required study into pros and cons of withdrawing from RSU 21 is expected to be on Arundel ballots in June. Selectmen have yet to decide how much they will recommend appropriating for that study, but a figure comparable to what TA is expected to pay for busing was widely discussed at the March 14 meeting.

Meanwhile, at its March 7 meeting, the school board voted 8-2 to allow Arundel students now enrolled at TAMS to finish out their middle school careers there. In addition, students from Arundel now in fifth grade, regardless of which RSU 21 school they currently attend, will get to go to TAMS next year if a parent or guardian commits in writing to that option, before April 15. After that, however, all Arundel students will be required to transition from the Mildred L. Day Elementary School to MSK.

One reason RSU 21 has pushed so hard to take back the Arundel students from TAMS is that administrators claim it can educate those children for less than the $8,000-plus tuition paid to TAMS. 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 the 2016-2017 budget proposal she unveiled Monday night.

Hawes also said the district could save an additional $185,000 per year if it did not have to transport Arundel students to TAMS. A decision on who will cover that cost is still in flux. Hawes said she and RSU 21 business director Bruce Rudolph met with Menard on March 11. TA’s chief financial officer, Paul Kelly, then met with Rudolph and RSU 21 transportation director Matthew Kearns on March 15.

Hawes said Monday those talks resulted in general agreements on cost sharing, which could include TAMS splitting the cost of transporting Arundel middle schoolers for the next three years, in addition to paying $35,000 to receive Arundel high school students.

However, Hawes stressed those agreements hinge on the April 4 votes in Biddeford and Sao on school start times.

“These things are all do-able if the start times at TA and TAMS do not change,” Hawes said. “But if Saco and Biddeford change their start times, then TA will follow suit and Rene [Menard] does not intent to have a different start time for TA and TAMS.

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 $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, unless the district tried to pick up all Arundel students in a single morning bus run, and then only if TAMS agreed to let Arundel students out of school a half-hour early in the afternoon. That, she said, seems unlikely.

Hawes said talks with peers in Biddeford and Saco have drawn predictions that both school boards will adopt the later start time with only a single dissenting vote between them.

“At this point I don’t have a whole lot to report, other than to say we are waiting to see what happens on April 6.”

Given that uncertainly – coupled with the fact that TA’s board of directors has not yet approved paying the $35,000 bill RSU 21 is requesting – school board member Catherine Rush of Arundel moved to table the change in transportation policy until after April 6.

However, others on the board pointed to another RSU 21 policy that says parents have to provide their own transportation if approved to send their children to a district elementary school outside of their own town.

“We have a policy that we do not bus from one town to another within the district, so why would we bus students outside the district?” asked policy committee chairman MaryBeth Luce, of Arundel.

Noting that the state provides no subsidy for the transportation of high school students, putting the cost entirely on the backs of local taxpayers, school board member Matthew Fadiman of Kennebunk compared requiring payment for transporting Arundel high schoolers to Saco to the cost a resident of Kennebunk’s Lower Village would have to pony up to have his or her child attend Kennebunkport Consolidated School.

“If that’s equitable, then it’s equitable that we charge to transport kids from Arundel to Saco,” he said.

Meanwhile, Luce said retaining the policy leaves unknown and unbudgeted costs hanging over the district’s head, should 15 or more Arundel high schoolers suddenly decide to enroll at some area school other than KHS or TA.

Still, while the busing ball now appears to be in the court of TA directors, Hawes said Monday’s policy change does not mean Arundel high schoolers or even middle schoolers will be left in the lurch.

“I’m not hearing anyone say there will be no busing. It’s more that we are trying to figure out how to provide that busing,” she said.

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

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