An arbitrator has told Regional School Unit 21 to stop enrolling Arundel students at the Middle School of the Kennebunks until he rules on a contract dispute between the school district and Thornton Academy in Saco.

The disagreement centers on the meaning of the words “all” and “every.”

Arbitrator Patrick Coughlan told RSU 21 this week not to accept any more applications from Arundel parents to send their kids to the Middle School of the Kennebunks instead of Thornton and not to enroll any students from Arundel until he rules on the arbitration.

He’ll hear arguments on the case at the end of the month with a ruling expected to follow soon after, before the school year starts.

Thornton Academy, which spent $3 million four years ago to renovate a building to house a middle school that is predominantly for Arundel children, asked the arbitrator to halt the enrollment process.

“This is the stay that we sought,” said Carl Stasio, Thornton Academy’s headmaster. “It’s a pretty clear statement.”

Arundel and Thornton Academy signed a contract in 2004, before the town joined the RSU with Kennebunk and Kennebunkport, to send the town’s children to the private Saco school. The contract said Thornton Academy would take all Arundel middle school students and that the town would pay tuition for every Arundel student who attends the private school.

Thornton Academy has argued that “all” means every Arundel student must go to the middle school, while the RSU says that the wording on the tuition portion — saying it would be paid for “every” student who enrolls at the school — suggests that not all Arundel students must go to Thornton Academy.

The RSU has voted to buy out its contract with Thornton Academy, effective next June, although under the state’s school consolidation law, Arundel students would still have the option to attend the private school. The RSU would still have to pay the tuition, which was $7,440 per student this year.

RSU officials believe they would save money if more students attended the public middle school, which has the capacity to hold about 120 more students, said Maureen King, the chair of the district’s school board, although Thornton Academy disputes the district’s financial analysis.

“I believe that many Arundel parents would like to have the choice” of which school their child should attend. King said. “They can find the school that’s right for them.”

Stasio said the private school is hoping that its interpretation of the contract is upheld and added that Thornton Academy will work hard after next June to try to convince Arundel students to continue to attend the middle school.

Beyond that, however, “we’ll adapt to whatever we have to adapt to,” he said.

Stasio said it’s hard to predict what will happen next year, when the contract buyout will give Arundel students a choice of schools to attend, regardless of the arbitrator’s ruling.

With Arundel students making up the majority of Thornton Academy’s middle school population– all but 18 of the 163 students came from Arundel this past year — he said the private school will have to watch enrollments closely to maintain the school’s offerings.

“It is heavily dependent on Arundel — we ultimately built the school for Arundel,” Stasio said.

The decision could have an impact beyond the middle school. RSU officials think that if students attend the Kennebunk middle school, they are likely to go on to attend Kennebunk High School. At the same time, Thornton Academy officials feel that students who go to the middle school in Saco will likely move on to attend the private high school.

Unlike the middle school, there is no contract between Arundel and Thornton Academy’s high school and students from the town are free to attend any school they wish.

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

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