SACO — Regional School Unit 21 is required to pay for Arundel students who choose to attend Thornton Academy Middle School in Saco, according to a Superior Court ruling.

In 2016, Thornton Academy and a number of Arundel parents filed a lawsuit against RSU 21 after it 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 includes the towns of Arundel, Kennebunk and Kennebunkport. RSU 21 designated Middle School of the Kennebunks, which is located within the school district, as the school for all its middle school pupils.

The vote came at the end of a 10-year contract between the town of Arundel and Thornton Academy, made in 2006, when Arundel was part of School Administrative District 71, allowing all Arundel middle school students to attend the newly formed Thornton Academy Middle School using public funding.

SAD 71 dissolved in 2009, when Arundel, Kennebunk and Kennebunkport joined together to form RSU 21. Many had believed that when the 10-year contract expired, Arundel middle school students would have the choice to attend either Thornton Academy Middle School or the Middle School of the Kennebunks through public funding.

RSU 21 attorney Dick Spencer reviewed the contract with Thornton Academy Middle School and in 2016 said students would not be able to continue to enter that school after the contract expired.

Spencer said that according to state law, students who did not have school choice, or the option to choose from more than one school, prior to the formation of the RSU – such as Arundel middle school students – did not have school choice after the contract expired. The Maine Department of Education agreed with Spencer.

The 2016 vote 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 they had the choice before the formation of the RSU.

RSU 21 officials announced on the website late Friday afternoon that the court had ruled that middle school students from Arundel have the right to attend either Middle School of the Kennebunks or Thornton Academy Middle School.

RSU 21 officials said in the coming days the RSU 21 School Board will review the court’s decision with attorneys and examine the impact of the decision on RSU 21’s finances and educational programs.

“At this point, no decision has been made with respect to an appeal of the Superior Court’s decision,” school department officials said in a written statement.

Thornton Academy Headmaster Rene Menard said Saturday in a letter to Arundel families that the “overwhelming majority” of students in Arundel attend high school at Thornton Academy, and many Arundel families want their children to begin attending Thornton at the middle school level.

“We are delighted that the law has been upheld and that Arundel’s right to publicly funded school choice remains firmly in place. We look forward to serving the students and families of Arundel for years to come,” Menard said.

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