ARUNDEL — Thornton Academy and a number of Arundel parents have filed a lawsuit against Regional School Unit 21, asking the court to preserve school choice for middle schoolers who want to attend Thornton Academy Middle School in the future.

The civil complaint was filed at York County Superior Court on Wednesday, said Thornton Academy Headmaster Rene Menard. A letter was also sent to Arundel parents Wednesday.

In 2006, when Arundel was part of Maine School Administrative District 71, a 10-year contract was signed with Thornton Academy for all Arundel middle schoolers to attend the newly formed TAMS. Thornton Academy is a private school.

In 2009, Arundel joined Kennebunk and Kennebunkport to form Regional School Unit 21. It had long been believed that when the contract expired, Arundel middle schoolers would have the choice to attend either TAMS or Middle School of the Kennebunks.

Dick Spencer of the law firm Drummond Woodsum, which represents RSU 21, recently reviewed the TAMS contract, and determined in February that Arundel students would not be able to continue attending TAMS through publicly paid tuition after the contract ends.

According to state law, students who did not have school choice prior to the formation of the RSU – such as Arundel students – do not have school choice now, Spencer said. The state Department of Education agreed with Spencer.

In light of this, the RSU 21 School Board voted in March to allow Arundel students who currently attend TAMS to finish out their education there, and to allow current Arundel fifth-graders to attend TAMS in the fall if they chose. Beyond that, students will not be given the choice to attend TAMS.

The vote did not affect high school students from Arundel, who will continue to have the choice to attend Thornton, Kennebunk High School or Biddeford High School, as they had the choice before the formation of the RSU.

Thornton Academy, along with 21 Arundel parents, contends in the lawsuit that RSU 21 is acting illegally by taking away Arundel students’ right to choice after the contract ends.

“This lawsuit is commenced to preserve the right of Arundel residents to choose to educate their middle school children at TAMS or MSK,” attorney Patricia Peard of the law firm Bernstein, Shur, Sawyer & Nelson wrote in court documents.

In an email, RSU 21 Superintendent Katie Hawes said the district stands by its decision.

“While we are not surprised by this litigation, we stand firmly by our legal opinion,” Hawes said. “The fact that our Board voted to allow existing students and those in grade 5 to attend TAMS at public expense both exceeds the terms of the expiring contract and shows a substantial commitment to Arundel families.”

Peard cites an opinion from former Deputy Commissioner of the Maine Department of Education Jim Rier that was acquired in 2008 when Arundel was preparing to be part of the RSU. Rier stated that Arundel middle school students could continue to go to TAMS after the contract ended. According to Peard, he recently affirmed that his 2008 opinion is still valid.

Peard also refers to a 2010 analysis prepared for the RSU 21 board that states Spencer and Rier agreed the law would allow Arundel middle school students to continue to attend TAMS if the contract was terminated.

And Peard cites multiple references of RSU 21 officials through January stating that the RSU would continue to send Arundel students to TAMS after the contract expired. She quotes then- Superintendent Andrew Dolloff, who stated in 2011, “as long as TAMS is in operation, Arundel students will have the choice to attend the school at the district’s expense. Choice will never be taken away.”

The lawsuit is asking the court to declare that state law preserves the right for Arundel students to choose between TAMS and MSK, stating that RSU 21 took “inappropriate and illegal action” when it voted to end that choice.

— Staff Writer Liz Gotthelf can be contacted at 282-1535, ext. 325 or [email protected]

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