2016-04-29 / Front Page

Board takes no stance on withdrawal

By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

During a 2.5-hour public hearing before the Arundel Board of Selectmen Monday, April 25, called to consider a June 14 referendum vote on initiating withdrawing the town from RSU 21, Paul Raymond, a proponent of the idea, turns to face an opponent, Costas Balomenos. (Duke Harrington photo) During a 2.5-hour public hearing before the Arundel Board of Selectmen Monday, April 25, called to consider a June 14 referendum vote on initiating withdrawing the town from RSU 21, Paul Raymond, a proponent of the idea, turns to face an opponent, Costas Balomenos. (Duke Harrington photo) ARUNDEL — When Arundel voters head to the polls June 14 to weigh in on withdrawing from RSU 21, they’ll do so without advice from selectmen.

At a meeting of the board Monday, April 25, Town Manager Keith Trefethen said state law compels them to provide a recommendation, printed on the town meeting ballot, for any question that asks voters to appropriate money to a particular purpose. The question before voters June 14 will be whether to take $45,000 from the town’s undesignated surplus account to fund a withdrawal committee.

Once the RSU 21 Board of Directors and the Maine commissioner of education are notified of the town’s intent to pull out of the school district – should the question pass – the $45,000 would be used to prepare a cost/benefit analysis of Arundel striking out on its own as an educational entity, and to negotiate an exit plan with RSU directors.

Once those plans are complete, a second vote will be called on whether to follow through on withdrawal.

While selectmen undoubtedly have opinions of their own on the topic, they have remained reticent about voicing those thoughts collectively, as the official will of the town. On Monday, Trefethen said Town Attorney Shana Mueller informed him in an opinion submitted “late last week” that offering no opinion meets the letter of the law.

“She indicated to me you could put [on the warrant] a ‘Yes’ note, a ‘No’ note, or ‘No action,’” Trefethen said. “She feels a non-action also would be endorsed by the Maine Municipal Association, because you’ve taken a stand. In this case, it would be a stand to let it move forward without any recommendation.”

Selectmen apparently liked that idea as, without debate, they quickly and unanimously voted in a “no recommendation” notation for the warrant item.

By that time, they were playing to a mostly empty house. Earlier in the evening, a standing room capacity crowd of nearly 60 had packed the library at the Mildred L. Day Elementary School, where selectmen hold their meetings. Those folks turned out for a public hearing on the withdrawal question – a session that, before everyone had argued themselves out, lasted 2.5 hours.

During the meeting, Selectman Thomas Danylik said the board not only would not provide a recommendation, “it can not.”

Town resident John Bell took Danylik to task for that assertion.

“Why can it not?” he asked. “This is our future. As the stewards and leaders of this town, you have moral responsibility to give a recommendation for or against the vote on the 14th [of June],” he said.

“We’ve already taken the position as a board that unless we initiate the petition – [unless] it’s ours, like buying equipment, and then we make a recommendation – we’ve got five people here with different opinions,” Danylik said. “I’m not going to saddle the other board members with my opinion on this issue. That’s why we don’t do it as a board. We may individually voice our opinions, but we don’t do it as a board.”

“The town needs to know where our leaders are coming from on this,” Bell said.

But if town fathers were keeping mum, residents themselves had much to say. And, if Monday’s hearing is any indication, the vote to remain in RSU 21 will pass by a much wider margin that the slim 57-vote squeaker the same question saw in 2012.

This time, the drive to divorce the regional school at the seven-year-itch mark (RSU 21 was formed in 2009), is being driven by school choice. Arundel has always tuitioned its high school students to area towns. In 2006 the town decided it could no longer afford instruction for its middle schoolers and, so, entered into a 10-year contract with Thornton Academy in Saco – a deal that led to the creation of Thornton Academy Middle School (TAMS).

Then in 2009, after Arundel joined with Kennebunk and Kenneunkport to create RSU 21, TA won a lawsuit to keep its contract with Arundel in force. That allowed TAMS to keep all Arundel middle schoolers in its system. But that status quo comes to an end June 30 and, on Feb. 16, Superintendent Katie Hawes circulated a legal opinion solicited from the Portland firm Drummond Woodsum stating that Maine’s school consolidation law only preserves school choice where it existed before the 2009 mergers.

That letter kicked the coop, as it were, and set Arundel residents to squawking. As a result, the RSU 21 board voted 8-2 at its March 7 meeting to allow Arundel students now enrolled at TAMS to finish out their middle school careers there. In addition, students from Arundel now in Grade 5, regardless of which RSU 21 school they currently attend, will get to go to TAMS, provided a parent or guardian committed in writing to that option by April 15.

However, by then the die was cast and, on March 14, Arundel selectmen accepted a petition for withdrawal. That petition was actually submitted in February, but, because this is not Arundel’s first trip to the withdrawal rodeo, or even its second, some of the initial signatures faced a potential legal challenge, because they dated as far back as 2014. Most of those residents simply offered up fresh signatures.

Adding another wrinkle, on April 6, Thornton Academy, joined by 12 Arundel families, filed suit in York County Superior Court seeking a declaratory judgment on the question of school choice.

Based on arbitration conducted as part of the 2009 suit, backed up by numerous public statements since, both by RSU 21 administrators and board members, as well as the Maine Department of Education, TA says in its suit that the order of the day for Arundel middle schoolers after June 30 should be school choice, not just for students now enrolled in Grade 5 in RSU 21, but in perpetuity.

“We stand with these Arundel families,” TA Headmaster Rene Menard said the day after the suit dropped. “We feel strongly that their right to continue to educate their children at TAMS is protected by law. I don’t think there’s any doubt or confusion about that. All parties for the past eight to 10 years have been well aware of this option.

Paul Raymond is one of the Arundel 12 parents joining TA in its lawsuit. He was the first to speak at Monday’s hearing, saying “We are not being treated fairly. We do not have representation.”

“I think it’s only fair to have the [withdrawal] study done, so we can find out the real numbers,” Raymond said, arguing that data from a similar pull-out study done in 2012 is “no longer relevant.”

Raymond pointed out that 2012 was a long time ago in terms of school deconsolidation. Arundel had been one of the first to try and separate and few understood the process, or the full set of data points involved in effecting a separation so soon after the statewide school unit consolidation effort.

However, since then, Raymond said, 26 towns have managed to get out of what many felt were forced mergers, with six more making a charge for independence this year.

“And they’re all doing very well,” Raymond said.

However, some in the audience, like Bell, were unimpressed.

“We are not any of those towns,” he said.

Because he is party to an ongoing lawsuit, Raymond quickly found himself unable to answer questions, leaving the pro-withdrawal contingent with just a couple of spokesmen in the crowd.

The balance were overwhelming in favor of remaining a part of RSU 2 – if not forever, at least until Raymond’s lawsuit plays out, and residents know if school choice will be an option for all Arundel students going forward.

Others said that even then, it will make financial sense for Arundel to remain in RSU 21. Jack Reetz, a member of Arundel’s budget board, even came armed with slides showing that while Arundel has 22 percent of the students in the district, its residents only pay 13 percent of the RSU’s total operating budget.

“Withdrawal is going to kill us as a town,” he said. “A better alternative is to put this to bed and wait for the court decision.”

Others argued that while it’s true Arundel has just three seats on the RSU 21 board of directors, it has none among the TAMS trustees.

Leia Lowery, a former RSU 21 board member who apologized for telling residents they’d always have school choice “because that’s what I was told,” also argued there are many other ways in addition to school board that Arundel residents have a voice in school district, from attending board meetings, to joining PTA groups, sitting on the budget board, and becoming part of a new positive climate committee.

“I’m frustrated by that constant comment that we do not have control,” she said. “If you are not speaking up, if you’re not taking that opportunity, that’s not lack of control, that’s your lack of taking control.”

Still, Dan Roche said Superintendent Hawes erred by frightening Arundel residents with the Feb. 16 letter. Instead, he said, the district should have sought a declaratory judgment of its own.

“A legal opinion is not a legal decision,” one audience member agreed, with others resisting the urge to condemn Hawes for not having access to a public relations expert.

However, Roche said, he favored choice, if only because it would lead RSU 21 to compete for students, even if that mean creating a PR department, rather than “getting fat and happy” on guaranteed enrollment.

“When there’s competition, it makes people work harder,” he said.

But the final word may have gone to Bill Jewett, an Arundel resident who coaches youth league football. While one person had announced the real reason for the separation effort comes down to “people in Arundel and Kennebunk don’t like each other,” Jewett said the real hate and discontent is being generated among neighbors in Arundel.

“These three towns are stronger together than we are apart,” he said. “We can not keep bringing this [withdrawal question] up every two years. This town is a mess because of it. There are people in this town who will never speak to each other again because of this mess. We need to move forward.”

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

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