Thornton Academy Middle School, as seen in this October file photo. LIZ GOTTHELF/Journal Tribune

ARUNDEL – A York County judge has upheld an October ruling that Regional School Unit 21 is required to pay for Arundel students who choose to attend Thornton Academy Middle School.

RSU 21 oversees education in Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Arundel.

In 2016, Thornton Academy and several Arundel parents filed a lawsuit against RSU 21, after the school board voted to discontinue funding for students to attend Thornton Academy Middle School, a private school in Saco, with the graduating class of 2019 to be the last class it funded.

RSU 21 designated Middle School of the Kennebunks, a public school located within the school district, as the school for all its middle school pupils.

The 2016 vote by the school board came at the end of a 10-year contract between the town of Arundel and Thornton Academy, made before the three communities joined together to form RSU 21. Under the terms of the 2006 contract, all Arundel middle school students were able to attend the then newly formed Thornton Academy Middle School, or TAMS, using public funding.

It was popular belief among Arundel residents that after the contract ended, students from Arundel would have the choice to attend either TAMS or the Middle School of the Kennebunks through public funding.

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However, the school district argued that since Arundel middle school students did not have school choice, or the option to choose from more than one school, prior to the 10-year TAMS contract, they should not have choice after the contract ended. This belief was supported by the Maine Department of Education, said the school district.

The 2016 vote by the school board did not affect high school students from Arundel, who continue to have the choice to attend Thornton Academy, Kennebunk High School or Biddeford High School, as school officials said high school students had choice prior to Arundel became part of the RSU.

In October, York County Superior Court ruled that middle school students from Arundel had the right to attend either Middle School of the Kennebunks or TAMs through public funding.

Shortly after, the RSU 21 board voted to ask the court to reconsider and amend its ruling.

The court has denied the school district’s request to reconsider or amend the ruling, Justice Wayne Douglas stated in a written court order dated Dec. 18.

Douglas said the original court decision follows state statute. Regarding the school district’s statement that the Board of Education supported its decision, he said, “An agency’s interpretation of the statute it administers is entitled to deference by the court.”

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RSU 21 Superintendent Katie Hawes said in an email that the district remains convinced that its position is consisted with the intention of the Maine Legislatures’ school reorganization laws.

“This result is not unexpected since it is rare that a judge will change his mind after issuing an order but we wanted to give him the chance to reconsider before proceeding to the next step in the process,” she said.

Thornton Academy Headmaster Rene Menard said the court’s decision was pretty clear, and the school is happy to continue to provide education to middle school students from Arundel.

“It’s good news for Arundel parents that the law has been upheld and their children will be allowed to attend TAMS,” said Thornton Academy Headmaster Rene Menard.

Arundel parent Noel Holmes said in an email that he and other parents have remained confident that the request to amend by RSU 21 would be defeated, though. But, he said, he and other parents are concerned that the RSU might continue its efforts to take away school choice for Arundel middle school students and require them to attend the Middle School of the Kennebunks.

“However, I for one appreciate receiving this early holiday gift for the kids in our town.,” he said.

— Staff Writer Liz Gotthelf can be contacted at 780-9015 or email [email protected]

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