ARUNDEL — Regional School Unit 21 will appeal a Superior Court ruling that says Arundel middle school students have the right to attend Thornton Academy Middle School, a private school in Saco, and have their tuition paid through public funding.

Thornton Academy and several Arundel parents filed a lawsuit two years ago against RSU 21 after it voted to stop providing funding for middle school students to attend Thornton Academy Middle School by the end of 2019. After that, Arundel students could only attend the middle school in Kennebunk.

The decision was made at the end of a 10-year contract between Thornton Academy and Arundel that was made when Arundel was part of the former School Administrative District 71. Some thought that after the contract ended, students from Arundel would have the choice to attend either Thornton Academy or the Middle School of the Kennebunks through public funding.

The school district, however, argued that since Arundel students did not have school choice, or the option to choose from more than one school, before the 10-year Thornton Academy Middle School contract, they should not have choice after the contract ended. The Maine Department of Education agreed with the district.

According to a ruling last week in York County Superior Court in favor of Thornton Academy, students from Arundel should be given the choice to attend that school through public funding.

The RSU 21 board of directors voted unanimously on Thursday night after an executive session to appeal that decision to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

“If the Superior Court’s decision is allowed to stand, it will divide the district by allowing one small group of students to attend a private school at public expense, create inefficiencies that increase the district’s costs, and raise taxes in all three towns,” RSU 21 Superintendent Katie Hawes said in a statement. “The Board does not believe that is what the Legislature intended when it passed the school reorganization law in 2007 to encourage greater efficiencies in public education.”

According to information from Katy Nicketakis, associate director for marketing and summer programs at Thornton Academy, there are 19 students from Arundel in the Class of 2019 at the middle school. She said tuition for each Arundel student is about $8,771, which includes the cost for bus transportation.

According to budget information on the RSU 21 website, the fiscal year 2019 budget for Middle School of the Kennebunks was about $4.3 million, with 586 projected students.

Noel Holmes, one of the parents who filed the lawsuit in 2016, said in an email he was saddened to hear the RSU 21 would be appealing the court’s decision, at taxpayer expense.

“This decision (to appeal) was made behind closed doors in ‘executive session’ and without public input as transparency should dictate,” he said.

He said he hoped RSU 21 would use the court’s decision to mend the divide between the towns and put the issue to rest. But, he said, instead the superintendent and the school board have decided to widen the divide with the decision to appeal.

“Our district has great schools; however, as reported and upheld by this judgment, Arundel has always had school choice and will continue to. Many other Arundel parents like myself support the longstanding policy of school choice regardless of whether we choose to send our kids to the district schools or to TAMS or TA, as it has always been about what parents feel is the best fit for their child or children,” said Holmes.

According to Hawes, RSU 21’s attorney, Richard Spencer, said it could take nine to 12 months before the Law Court issues a decision on the appeal.

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