An arbitrator has ruled that 19 students from Arundel may attend the Middle School of the Kennebunks this year, but Regional School Unit 21 will have to compensate Thornton Academy for lost tuition for the next three years, at a total potential cost of more than $300,000.

The school district and the private academy have been in a dispute for months over the meaning of a contract signed five years ago by the town of Arundel to send students to a new middle school that Thornton Academy built.

Since Arundel joined the regional school district two years ago, officials have contended that it would be cheaper to send the middle schoolers to the district’s middle school than to send them to Thornton and pay the state-mandated tuition – $7,440 per student last year.

RSU 21 began asking parents this year if they would like to have their children attend the Middle School of the Kennebunks in 2010-11.

The arbitrator, Patrick Coughlan, decided Monday that parents who have formally indicated they want their children to attend the Middle School of the Kennebunks can go ahead for 2010-11, but the district must pay their tuition to Thornton Academy Middle School.

The arbitrator left intact the district’s decision to buy out the contract between Arundel and Thornton Academy at the end of the upcoming school year, at a cost of nearly $1.2 million. The buyout will need approval from the district’s voters next spring.

The contract said that all Arundel middle school students would be sent to Thornton Academy, which spent $3 million to build its middle school after signing the contract with Arundel. RSU 21 argued that other wording in the contract left the meaning of “all” less clear.

Coughlan sided with Thornton Academy on that issue, but didn’t disrupt the plans of the 19 students whose parents have indicated they want their children to go to the Middle School of the Kennebunks.

In addition to paying tuition this year to Thornton Academy for Arundel students who go to school in Kennebunk, the district will have to pay 75 percent of the tuition for the years those students stay at the Middle School of the Kennebunks.

Coughlan said the decision on where children attend sixth grade has a strong effect on where they go for seventh and eighth grade, so the district must partially compensate Thornton Academy for lost tuition for those years.

Thornton Academy said Tuesday that its calculations show it will be owed about $315,000 from the district over the next three years.

Officials for both sides declared victory after the ruling.

Andrew R. Dolloff, superintendent of RSU 21, said the district is pleased that it will be able to enroll the 19 students at the Middle School of the Kennebunks. Carl Stasio, Thornton Academy’s headmaster, said the requirement that the district compensate the academy indicates that the arbitrator came down on his side.

The district anticipates that more parents will choose to send their children to the Kennebunk school in coming years, given longstanding ties between Arundel and its neighboring town, Dolloff said. That will lead more Arundel students to go to Kennebunk High School instead of the high school at Thornton Academy, he said, compounding savings for the district.

Two parents who will send children to the Middle School of the Kennebunks said they like what the public school offers, particularly in science and art, and their decision reflects the ties between Arundel and the Kennebunks.

Kennebunk “is where I do business and do my banking and go to the library,” said Dorothy Gregorie, who will send her oldest child, a sixth-grader, to the Middle School of the Kennebunks later this month. “It’s one town over, it’s right there and that’s the biggest thing.”

Pamela Richard-Wuerthner said that getting to Thornton Academy takes about 25 minutes, while a trip to the Middle School of the Kennebunks takes half that, making it easier to get her daughter from after-school activities and for the family to take part in school programs.

She noted that her oldest daughter will stay on for high school at Thornton Academy after attending middle school there for three years. Her youngest daughter is in elementary school in Arundel.

“So I’ll actually have three children in schools in three towns,” she said. “It could be challenging.”

 

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: [email protected]