The Maine supreme court has upheld the decision to allow Arundel students to attend Thornton Academy Middle School through public funding. LIZ GOTTHELF/Journal Tribune

PORTLAND – The Maine Supreme Judicial Court has upheld a decision to allow students to attend Thornton Academy Middle School through Regional School Unit 21.

The decision, made Thursday, affirms a ruling made in October by a York County Superior Court.

The RSU 21 Board, governing schools in Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Arundel, voted in 2016 to discontinue RSU funding for Arundel middle school students to attend Thornton Academy Middle School, or TAMS, a private school in Saco. This vote came at the end of a 10-year contract allowing TAMS to be the designated middle school for Arundel students.

The board at that time also agreed that those graduating TAMS in 2019 would be the last class it funded, and designated the Middle School of the Kennebunks, a public school located within the school district, as the school for all its middle school pupils.

The school board vote did not affect where Arundel high school students went to school, and students from Arundel continued to have the choice to attend Thornton Academy, Kennebunk High School or Biddeford High School.

The decision by the RSU board prompted a lawsuit brought by Thornton Academy and a group of Arundel parents who believed students from Arundel should still be allowed to attend TAMS through public funding.

A York County Superior Court decision on Oct. 5, 2018, affirmed that Arundel students should be allowed to attend TAMS through public funding.

The RSU asked York County Superior Court to reconsider the earlier decision, and Justice Wayne Douglas stated in a written court order dated Dec. 18 that the October court decision granting Arundel students public funding to attend TAMS followed state statute.

The RSU appealed the decision to the State Supreme Court. In its ruling published on Thursday it affirmed the York County Superior Court’s decision, allowing middle school students from Arundel to attend TAMS through RSU funding.

In its decision, a Maine supreme court panel affirmed the previous judgment and stated that state law preserves the students rights to attend the school through public funding after the contract expired.

Thornton Academy Headmaster Rene Menard said the court’s decision affirms what officials from Thornton have believed all along.

“We’re pleased for the families of Arundel students. This is great news,” said Menard.

Menard said Thornton Academy continued to bill RSU 21 for Arundel students in the TAMS graduating classes of 2020 and 2021, even though the RSU’s position was that it shouldn’t have to fund the students. The tuition rate for TAMS, established by the Maine Department of Education is $9,300 per student. According to the Maine Department of Education, there are 14 Arundel students in the TAMS class of 2020 and 17 Arundel students in the class of 2021.

Menard said that with the state supreme court upholding the decision to allow Arundel students to attend TAMS through public funding, Thornton and RSU 21 will have to settle the bill from the past two years.

Thornton appreciates the support from Arundel families, he said.

“We are thrilled that uncertainty has been eliminated, and look forward to hearing from even more Arundel families who want to join the TAMS learning community,” Menard said.

In June, former Kennebunk School Superintendent Katie Hawes said that about 110 students from Arundel will be attending The Middle School of the Kennebunks from Arundel in the upcoming school year.

Hawes said RSU 21 pays nearly $9,300 tuition per pupil to attend TAMS, at a tuition rate established by the Maine Department of Education. Hawes did not have an exact figure for per pupil costs for Middle School of the Kennebunks students, however, she said it was believed that by keeping Arundel middle school students at a school in the district, it could result in an annual savings of more than $750,000 for the taxpayers of Arundel, Kennebunk and Kennebunkport.

Though there are no specific numbers for per pupil costs for The Middle School of the Kennebunks, the cost per pupil for Pre-K through eighth-grade students in RSU 21 is about $13,600, according to data from the Maine Department of Education.

The $9,300 per pupil costs for Arundel students to attend TAMS includes bus service to and from school, according to TA spokeswoman Katie Beane.

Beane said the school expects about 50 students from Arundel to attend TAMS in the upcoming school year.

RSU 21 is disappointed in the decision handed down by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court–a decision that the court recognizes may undermine RSU 21’s attempt to consolidate the public education of the children living within the RSU.  Despite the ruling, RSU 21 will continue to provide top-tier educational opportunities for all residents of Arundel, Kennebunk, and Kennebunkport,” said RSU 21 Chairwoman MaryBeth Luce in a written statement,

RSU 21 Board attorney Dick Spencer told the Portland Press Herald that the Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling is likely the last ruling.

“Obviously we were disappointed in the result, but the court interpreted the statute the way they did,” Spencer said. “Because it’s the law court, that’s really the final word on how the statute will be interpreted.”

 

Staff Writer Liz Gotthelf can be reached at 780-9015 or by email at [email protected].

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