2016-05-06 / Front Page

RSU 21 rejects busing offer

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — The wheels on the bus may go round and round, but the RSU 21 board of directors would like the dollars that pay for that bus to stay in one place – preferably at Thornton Academy, in Saco.

In a split vote, Monday, May 2, the school board voted 7-5 to reject a cost-sharing contract between the district and Thornton Academy Middle School (TAMS) for transporting middle school students from Arundel for the next three years.

The decision was close enough that school board chairman Maureen King called for a weighted vote. Because representation on the RSU 21 Board of Directors – six from Kennebunk and three, each, from Kennebunkport and Arundel – is not exactly proportional to the population of each town, Supreme Court rulings on the principal of “one person, one vote” require the vote of each director to carry a value to even things out. The vote of a Kennebunk director is worth 98 points, Arundel 69 and Kennebunkport 68.

The weighted total for the busing vote came to 696 for refusing the TAMS contract offer, and 303 for adopting it.

Voting to reject the cost-sharing formula with TAMS were Jeff Cole, Frank Drigotas, Brad Huot and Lionel Menard, all of Kennebunk; MaryBeth Luce and Erin Nedeau, both of Arundel; and Amy Johnson of Kennebunkport. Supporting the proposal were Matthew Fadiman and Mike Mosher, both of Kennebunk; Catherine Rush of Arundel; and Peter Fellenz and board chairman Maureen King, both of Kennebunkport.

The road from there to here

According to district business administrator Bruce “Rudy” Rudolph, the agreement hammered out between himself and his counterpart at TA, with input from Superintendent Katie Hawes and TA Headmaster Rene Menard, was a “transitional plan” through the 2018-2019 school year, when all Arundel middle schoolers will have to attend the Middle School of the Kennebunks (MSK).

Arundel entered into a 10-year contract with TA in 2006 to educate the town’s middle school students, resulting in the creation of TAMS. After RSU 21 was created in 2009, it tried to take back the Arundel students, resulting in a lawsuit that settled TAMS’ right to keep those enrollees for the length of the contract.

During that time, and as late as a March 6, officials from the Maine Department of Education reaffirmed the belief that, once the contract ended, Arundel parents would be able to choose between TAMS and MSK.

But on Feb. 16, Hawes signaled that RSU 21 might take back those students after the Arundel/TAMS contract expires June 30. A legal opinion circulated by Hawes from the Portland firm Drummond Woodsum stated that school

Timeline of TAMS issue

2002 — Arundel learns the federal No Child Left Behind Act will not allow it to continue using the Mildred L. Day School (MLD) for middle school students.

2003 — SAD 71 (made up of Kennebunk and Kennenbunkport) rejects accepting Arundel middle schoolers, saying the soon-to-be built Middle School of the Kennebunks (MSK) will not be large enough to accommodate the added enrollment.

2006 — Arundel enters into a 10-year contract with Thornton Academy (TA) to educate its middle school students, resulting in the creation of Thornton Academy Middle School (TAMS).

2009 — Arundel joins with Kennebunk and Kennebunkport to form RSU 21.

June 2010 — RSU 21 moves to terminate the contract between Arundel and TAMS.

May 2011 — Voters in Kennebunkport vote to fund a buyout of Arundel’s contract with TAMS. However, voters in Kennebunk and Arundel reject the proposal, killing the borrowing request.

August 2011 — An arbiter rules RSU 21 cannot terminate Arundel’s agreement with TAMS because it lacks funds to buy out the contract, thus allowing TAMS to keep all Arundel middle school students for the duration of its contract with the town. Families are repeatedly told they will be able to choose between TAMS and MSK once the contract expires.

November 2012 — Arundel voters narrowly reject a proposal to withdraw from RSU 21, 1,169-1,044

June 2013 — RSU 21 informs TAMS that it will not seek to renew the contract for Arundel middle schoolers, stating, “It is the board’s understanding that, under Maine law, middle school students from Arundel would continue to have the option to attend TAMS with the district paying tuition as determined by the Department of Education for as long as the school continues to operate as a middle school.”

January 2014 — RSU 21 voters overwhelmingly reject a $76.8 million bond to rebuild MLD, along with Kennebunk High School (KHS) and Kennebunkport Consolidated School (KCS).

June 2015 — Voters in Kennebunkport reject a warrant article 524-928 calling on the town to fund a study into withdrawing from RSU 21. Meanwhile, RSU 21 residents vote 3,932-2,398 to approve a $56.5 million bond to renovate MLD, KHS and KCS.

January 2016 — RSU 21 launches a cooperative effort with recreation departments in Arundel and Kennebunk to create shared programming, with the stated hope that Arundel students, having made friends with peers in Kennebunk, will choose MSK over TAMS once they reach middle school.

Feb. 1 — At an RSU 21 school board meeting, Superintendent Katie Hawes says the district will not transport Arundel middle schoolers to TAMS after June 30. A policy change is introduced in first reading to remove a guarantee to transport high school students who choose to go out of district.

Feb. 16 — Hawes circulates a legal opinion from district attorneys stating that all Arundel middle schoolers should have to attend MSK with the 2016-2017 school year.

Feb. 22 — Arundel selectmen accept a petition to start the process of withdrawing the town from RSU 21. However, the petition is questioned due to the age of some signatures.

March 7 — The RSU 21 school board votes 8-2 to allow students now in Grades 5-8 to attend TAMS for the duration of their middle school years. Younger children will have to attend MSK when the time comes. The board also agrees in principle to funding a share of the cost to transport Arundel middle schoolers to TAMS during the “transition” period.

March 14 — Arundel selectmen accept fresh petition signatures, agreeing to put the question of whether to appropriate $40,000 to fund a withdrawal study committee on the town meeting ballot in June.

March 21 — The RSU 21 school board votes 9-1 to amend district policy, ending a guarantee to transport high school student who choose to enroll elsewhere.

April 6 — Trustees for TAMS and TA, as well as school boards for Biddeford, Dayton and Saco, vote to institute later start times for middle and high school students starting in the fall of 2016. RSU 21 officials say the change will complicate any busing agreement between it and TAMS.

April 6 — TA, joined by 12 Arundel families, files suit in York County Superior Court seeking a declaratory judgment that Arundel students will get to choose between TAMS and MSK in perpetuity.

April 15 — Deadline passes for Arundel parents to choose between TAMS and MSK. Reportedly, just 17 of about 130 Arundel middle school students will attend MSK next year.

April 26 — The Arundel Budget Board votes to recommend a “No” vote on funding the withdrawal study.

April 28 — TA trustees approve an agreement to share with RSU 21 the cost of busing Arundel middle school students to TAMS through 2019.

May 2 — The RSU 21 school board rejects the cost-sharing proposal on busing,

June 30 — Arundel’s contract with TA expires. choice for Arundel residents should only apply where it existed before RSU 21 was created in 2009, meaning for high school students only. TA followed up with a dueling legal memo of its own, then pressed its case April 6 by filing suit in York County Superior Court, seeking a declaratory judgment that Arundel middle schoolers will get to choose between TAMS and MSK in perpetuity.

Meanwhile, RSU 21 directors voted 8-2 on March 7 to allow students now in Grades 5-8 to attend TAMS for the duration of their middle school years, ruling that younger children will have to attend MSK when the time comes. The board also agreed in principle to funding a share of the cost to transport Arundel middle schoolers to TAMS during the “transition” period.

Cost sharing proposal

However, a wrench was thrown in the works April 6 when TA trustees, along with school boards from Biddeford, Dayton and Saco, voted to institute a later state time for middle and high school students starting next fall. According to Hawes, because RSU 21 uses its entire bus fleet to transport middle and school students, and then puts those buses back on the road to pick up elementary school students, it will not have any buses available to send Arundel middle schoolers to TAMS.

“All of our buses will be out at the exact same time,” she said.

Rudolph said that means TA will have to make arrangements with some other transportation provider, probably contracting for as many as four buses to pick up Arundel students. Because TA will use those buses to move middle and high school students at the same time, RSU 21 would only pay 78 percent of the busing costs, Rudolph said, noting that TA would then reimburse the district for half of that 78 percent. Whatever that final cost came to, it would never surpass a cap of half of what RSU 21 pays now to transport Arundel middle schoolers to TAMS, or $122,000 per year.

Meanwhile, RSU 21 will still use its own buses to transport special education students to TAMS, with TA reimbursing half of that cost, or $29,000 per year. According to Hawes, because the special education trip involves a single student now in eighth grade, that cost will disappear after June 2017, thanks to a 9-1 board vote on March 21 to end a policy of paying to provide transportation to high school students enrolled out of district.

That would lower RSU’s share of the TAMS transportation bill for Arundel students from a maximum of $151,000 next year, to the $122,000 cap for the 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 school years.

Meanwhile, Hawes said the Thornton Academy Board of Trustees approved the cost sharing proposal at its most recent meeting, on April 28.

However, that’s where the busing agreement seemed to fall apart, with some RSU board members raising an eyebrow at TA being so quick to endorse the deal.

“I find that fascinating,” said board member Frank Drigotas of Kennebunk. “Because, throughout this process, they’ve seemed incapable of making any decision whatsoever without waiting to see what we did.”

At several appearances, particularly in March before Arundel selectmen, when they received a petition to withdraw the town from RSU 21 over the school choice issue, TA Headmaster Rene Menard said his trustees would concede first move to the RSU board.

“So, in my mind, that might tell you something,” Drigotas said. “You can jump to your own conclusions. If I have to spell it out, then you shouldn’t even be on the board.”

Other board members chimed in agreement.

“For me, I don’t think that’s an equitable split,” Jeff Cole, of Kennebunk, said. “I commend Rudy and Katie for their efforts, but to me, this just isn’t fair. They’ve created an inefficiency in cost because of their change in times, but we’re going to share the cost on the basis of what our costs were before, and I don’t think that’s fair to RSU 21.”

I also don’t think it’s fair to the parents of the Port, and Arundel, and Kennebunk, who are paying out of their own pockets to transport their children if they want to go to a different school,” said Lionel Menard, of Kennebunk. “Instead, these Arundel parents are getting a free ride.”

School board member MaryBeth Luce, of Arundel, noted that of the maximum $337,000 the plan committed RSU 21 to paying over three years, $293,190 would come from Kennebunk and Kennebunkport taxpayers, based on the district’s cost sharing plan, with $43,810 paid by their peers in Arundel.

“I don’t really believe I’m saying this, but I do agree with Lionel and Jeff,” said Brad Huot, also of Kennebunk. “For me, this is adding insult to injury. We are just giving and giving and giving, and I think, in this case, we are being way too nice, and it’s at the expense of taxpayers in all three towns.”

“I hear the frustration, and I share some of that,” said Matthew Fadiman of Kennebunk. “It all goes back to the basis that the taxpayers of Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Arundel are paying to send kids to a private school when many feel, including myself, that we don’t have to.

“That said, we as a board voted for a three-year transition plan to send Arundel kids to TAMS,” Fadiman said. “In doing so, we all know that’s going to cost somewhere around $1 million a year in tuition. But we still, as a board majority, said that was a good thing to do. If we said it’s a good and right thing to spend $3 million to send Arundel students to a private school, you can’t leave them by the roadside and say, stick your thumb out and you can get to school any way you want.

“If we can shallow the transition plan, I can swallow the transportation plan,” Fadiman said.

However, Cash noted that directors had purposely carved off transportation for future discussions.

Meanwhile, the strongest arguments for the transportation plan came not from any member of the school board, but from area selectmen.

“To sit here and say Arundel should bear all of this when this board has said here for years and years that Arundel would always have choice is, to me, a slap in our face,” Arundel Selectman Dan Dubois said. “This is a compromise. You guys have an obligation. Can you do better? Absolutely. But to pull the wool out from under the Arundel folks I think is totally wrong. You’ve already created an uproar in our community. Let’s get this over with.”

“I think we all want compromise,” Cole replied. “I think we’d like a better compromise that is in favor of RSU 21, of which Arundel still is a part of.”

Meanwhile, Kennebunk Selectman Ed Karytko said the difference between whatever RSU 21 ends up agreeing to pay on Arundel to TAMS transport, and the $180,000 placeholder in the FY 2017 budget approved by the school board, should be returned to residents to help reduce the property tax mil rate.

“It’s not a lot, but every penny counts,” he said.

Instead, the board voted 10-2 later during Monday’s meeting to take $26,000 from the line item budgeted to transport Arundel students, and use those dollars instead it to hire a third full-time Spanish teacher at the elementary school level.

The board directed Hawes and Rudolph to renegotiate a better deal with TA, and return to the next meeting with a new plan.

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

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