Voters in Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Arundel rejected a $35.7 million school budget and a $1.2 million buyout from their district’s contract with Thornton Academy Middle School in a referendum Tuesday.

A second vote on the 2011-12 budget for Regional School Unit 21 has been scheduled tentatively for June 14.

Most of the opposition to the ballot questions came from Arundel’s voters, who rejected all four. Residents in Kennebunkport supported all four, and residents of Kennebunk supported all but the contract buyout.

Arundel has been a reluctant partner in the three-town school district, which was formed in 2008 under the state’s consolidation law. This year, a bill was introduced in the Legislature to allow Arundel to withdraw from the district without penalty. The bill was killed in committee in April.

The effort that led to Tuesday’s referendum on buying out the Thornton Academy contract started a year ago.

Arundel signed a contract with Thornton Academy five years ago, when the private academy added a middle school at a cost of $3 million. Of the 146 students who now attend the middle school, 133 are from Arundel. Most students continue through high school at Thornton Academy.

The contract carried over when Arundel joined Kennebunk and Kennebunkport to form RSU 21, preventing Arundel students from attending middle school within the district, at the Middle School of the Kennebunks. The buyout was proposed to give middle school and high school students a choice of schools.

It would have cost the district $1.2 million to terminate the contract June 30.

On Wednesday, officials at Thornton Academy thanked people who supported the contract.

In a prepared statement, school officials said they “highly value their relationship with the Arundel community,” and cited an RSU 21 survey done in April 2010 that showed 78 percent of Thornton Academy Middle School students were satisfied with the school.

“With the contract vote behind us, our board of trustees, administrators, faculty and staff are focusing on what’s really important: educating students and ensuring they receive opportunities in academics, athletics and arts,” said Thornton Academy Headmaster Carl Stasio.

Monique Gallant of Arundel, who has a seventh-grader and a freshman at Thornton Academy’s schools, said the vote shows the district what Arundel wants.

“It shows that we have the support of the townspeople, that the people like Thornton Academy and did not want that choice” of middle schools, Gallant said.

Norm Archer, chairman of the RSU 21 Board of Directors, said the vote clearly shows where Arundel stands.

“We’ve heard loud and clearly from Arundel that they don’t really want to be part of the district. For me, that’s the bigger concern,” Archer said.

Archer, who represents Kennebunkport, said withdrawal from the district is a town issue, and something that would need state approval. He anticipates that Arundel will continue to pursue withdrawal.

“In the meantime, we have to just get this budget passed,” Archer said.

Superintendent Andrew Dolloff said the school board will likely focus its efforts on reducing the impact on taxpayers.

The proposed $35.7 million budget called for a 1.9 percent increase in spending over this year. It would have increased property taxes by $29 per $100,000 of assessed valuation in Kennebunk, $15 in Kennebunkport and $88 in Arundel.

Many communities that merged into regional school districts have expressed dissatisfaction with them. Jon Renell of Arundel, who was a member of the committee that developed RSU 21, said that was reflected in Tuesday’s vote.

“The whole consolidation was rammed down people’s throats,” he said, adding that the disparity in cost sharing was a big reason for the budget’s rejection. “The school consolidation was supposed to save, it was supposed to be a reduction in cost, and that really didn’t happen.”

The district’s finance committee will meet at 7:30 a.m. today to rework the budget. The committee will make a new recommendation to the board at 10 a.m. Friday at Kennebunk Elementary School.

A public hearing on the new budget proposal would likely be held next week in preparation for the June 14 vote.

Staff Writer Emma Bouthillette can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:
[email protected]