SACO – It was disheartening to read the March 16 Press Herald editorial pitting Maine’s oldest schools — the town academies — against public schools, all in the chase to the bottom for funding education.

It was also dismaying to see the editorial “case” resting on incomplete numbers.

All schools serving public students strive to do their best, and they do it these days with funds that are always stretched. This is as true of the town academies as it is of the public schools because the academies have lived with a state-regulated cap for decades — a fact not mentioned.

Yet many town academies have done their work while charging their towns less per pupil than public schools of similar size and curricular offerings.

I can speak with knowledge since I served as finance director for nine years at Thornton Academy, the sole town academy mentioned in the editorial, and as head of fundraising there for an overlapping 19 years.

During my 19 years, the per-pupil tuition that Thornton Academy charged its sending communities ranked from 13th to 20th in comparison with per-pupil costs posted for the 26 high schools in York and Cumberland counties.

In my last year, 2006-07, Thornton opened a new middle school for Arundel students. The state-capped amount Thornton could charge in that year was among the lowest per-pupil totals in the two southern Maine counties — and still is today.

The editorial correctly stated that Arundel pays Thornton $7,440 for each middle school student for regular education. It did not, however, mention, in fairness, what the per-pupil costs were at the Middle School of the Kennebunks.

The state reports per-pupil costs combined for regular and special education, and for 2008-09, it reported a $10,237 per-pupil cost at the Kennebunks. The per-pupil amount Thornton charged, however, was $9,122.

Nor is it likely that the RSU’s per-pupil middle school costs would suddenly decrease dramatically if it gained all the Arundel middle school students. Like Thornton, they will need to add considerable staff to serve 145 more students, unless of course they are overstaffed, in which case they could save taxpayers money by not adding the Arundel middle-schoolers but instead reducing staff.

How, one might ask, could Thornton afford to build and run a middle school based on a low, capped tuition rate if the RSU is spending more per pupil?

I would answer that Thornton could do what it did because of history. In my 19 years at Thornton, I saw first-hand the generosity that could be inspired by the town academy’s history — educating generations, keeping them abreast of the school’s progress and asking them to help fund the enrichment programs and capital projects that make the Thornton campus so special and less reliant on tuition.

I would also answer that Thornton is cost-efficient because of long-range planning, a historical strength of the town academies. Town academy trustees have a fiduciary duty to plan, and like businesses they have long-range financial and master plans.

In Thornton’s case, trustees in 2000 looked ahead and saw the declining numbers of high school students as a serious threat to the curriculum.

Because of their private structure, Thornton’s trustees, most of them alumni and former parents, could actively plan to change that future.

So, they used private funds to create a middle school that would strengthen Thornton’s long-standing ties to Arundel and thus generate more high school students. (Its new dorms for private students are part of the same plan.)

Today, with the declining enrollment numbers, the public schools understandably are gasping (and grasping) to maintain their breadth of programs. One cannot blame them, but neither should the town academies be devalued in the process.

That Thornton built a middle school for Arundel and continues to charge taxpayers less per pupil than the going rate in the Kennebunks is nowhere mentioned in the editorial.

Nor is the fact that the town academies have more historical and structural resources than public schools to be nimble in their financial futures — surely a benefit to students worth touting.

Both Thornton Academy and Kennebunk middle schools are good schools. Yet the media would prefer we “duke it out,” and sadly that is what is happening.

The editors might want to ask themselves what they are championing in valuing the short-term gain in taxpayers’ pockets over an investment in K-12 and post-secondary education programming at a level to guarantee our students’ and state’s economic future.

 

— Special to the Press Herald