The school district for Arundel, Kennebunk and Kennebunkport may pay more than $1 million to end its contract to send middle school students from Arundel to Thornton Academy.

The Regional School Unit 21 Board of Directors believes that buying out the five years left in its contract with Thornton Academy Middle School would save the district at least $1 million over six years.

The contract was negotiated by Arundel and Thornton Academy, a private school in Saco, in 2004, before Arundel joined Kennebunk and Kennebunkport to form RSU 21.

The buyout concept, which the school board approved unanimously on Monday, calls for the contract to end June 30, 2011. The district would have to reimburse nearly $1.2 million of the nearly $3 million that Thornton Academy spent to build a new middle school three years ago.

The board also agreed Monday to accept as many as 45 students from Arundel at the district’s own middle school this fall.

In order for the buyout to occur, the funding would have to be determined and built into that year’s school budget, which will need voter approval, said RSU 21 Superintendent Andrew Dolloff.

Tuition costs — $7,440 per middle school student at Thornton — don’t account for all of the potential savings, Dolloff said.

Because of economies of scale, RSU 21 could add students without adding expenses, he said. It cost the district $8,380 to educate each elementary student in the past school year, according to data from the state Department of Education.

The savings could be greater, the board says, if more Arundel students start opting to stay in RSU 21’s schools.

Arundel’s middle school students would still have the option of attending Thornton Academy, with the district paying the tuition.

“It’s a win for parent and students,” Dolloff said. “They’re going to be choosing between two schools that are clearly going to be competing for their enrollment. It’s a strange position for public schools to be in, but it’s one that we welcome.”

Carl Stasio, Thornton Academy’s headmaster, said his institution took a risk to build a middle school to serve students from Arundel and Dayton when other communities — including the Kennebunks — didn’t want them.

“We thought we could serve them well, and we have,” he said.

In the past school year, 145 of the academy’s 163 middle school students were from Arundel.

Stasio said RSU 21’s decision to accept as many as 45 Arundel students at the Middle School of the Kennebunks this fall is an effort to circumvent the contract. That issue is expected to go to arbitration.

Lawyers for both sides had been preparing for arbitration in anticipation of the board’s action, Stasio said.

There is no middle school or high school in Arundel, which essentially outsources its middle school education to Thornton Academy.

High school students from Arundel can attend any high school. Ninety percent of those who go to middle school at Thornton Academy opt to stay there for high school. About 160 of Arundel’s 180 high school-age students attend Thornton Academy, which has about 1,250 high school students.

The RSU 21 board felt confident in moving forward with the buyout plan in light of a poll of parents of Arundel schoolchildren, said Jack Reetz, an Arundel representative on the board.

Forty-seven percent of those who responded said they would like to see the Thornton Academy contract extended beyond its 2016 end date; 32 percent said they want it terminated sooner while retaining school choice; and 21 percent said the contract should be allowed to expire in 2015.

The responses came from 132 households, out of 370 that were sent the questionnaire.

Donna Buttarazzi is among the parents in Arundel who are upset with the board’s vote. She says the district isn’t honoring the contract and is acting irresponsibly.

“The tuition dollars are what keep the school vital and going,” said Buttarazzi, the mother of two Thornton Academy students. “That seriously impacts what they can provide for services, for the education they can provide.”

 

Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at: [email protected]