The Maine Supreme Judicial Court has upheld a ruling by a lower court that students in Arundel have the right to attend Thornton Academy’s middle school and have their tuition paid for using public funds.

The judgment handed down Thursday affirms a York  County Superior Court ruling in October that was appealed by Regional School Unit 21. It also means the district will have to come up with about $500,000 to cover unpaid tuition it owes Thornton Academy.

Thornton Academy in Saco The Forecaster file photo

The school district, which includes Arundel, Kennebunk and Kennebunkport, has argued that students in Arundel should attend the Middle School of the Kennebunks after the expiration of a 10-year contract Arundel had with Thornton Academy, a private school in Saco.

The contract was put in place when Arundel was part of the now defunct School Administrative District 71, and some parents there have argued their children should continue to be able to attend the grades 6-8 middle school their community had designated before a state reorganization of districts.

On Thursday, the state’s high court ruled in their favor by affirming school choice ought to be preserved and students in a former school district have the right to have their tuition paid for by the new unit.

“We’re thrilled it ended this way,” said Arundel resident Wendy Carll, one of 31 parents listed as plaintiffs on the lawsuit. “Hopefully this is the end and hopefully going forward everyone can calm down and come together as a community.”

Carll and her husband, Jesse Carll, said they chose to live in Arundel because of the prospect of sending their three children to Thornton Academy.

“We decided to stay here because we did like the school and felt it was a better fit for our children,” she said.

The decision means RSU 21 will have to pay about $500,000 in tuition that Thornton Academy officials said the district has withheld over the last few years while the lawsuit was pending.

The school is anticipating enrolling about 50 students from Arundel in the 2019-20 school year. The students are not subject to the private pay tuition rate. Instead, the amount the district has to pay per student is determined by the state and is currently $9,272, meaning RSU 21 would have to pay over $450,000 if 50 students attend Thornton Academy Middle School.

Thornton Academy Headmaster Rene Menard said it has been a financial challenge to educate two classes of students for which it did not receive tuition, and he is hoping the district will promptly pay the back tuition.

“It’s not something we could sustain long term, but the board of trustees made that decision because we wanted to stick by Arundel families,” he said. “We knew what the law was and what the right thing to do was.”

RSU 21 Acting Superintendent Phil Potenziano and school board Chair MaryBeth Luce did not respond to requests for comment Thursday, but district and board attorney Richard Spencer said the Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling is likely the last word on the issue.

“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.”

Spencer said he did not have information on how the district will pay the tuition to Thornton Academy. “I think that’s something we’ll have to look at and will give an opinion to the district on at a later date,” he said.

The court’s decision stems from a lawsuit that was filed in 2016 by Arundel parents and Thornton Academy after the RSU 21 school board voted to stop paying tuition for Arundel students to attend Thornton Academy Middle School, saying those graduating in 2019 would be the last class it funded.

The district argued it was not required to preserve school choice after the state implemented the reorganization in 2007 that created RSU 21.

But the courts ruled its interpretation of the law was too narrow and that school units affected by reorganization have the obligation to continue offering students the same school choice they had before the reorganization, whether it be via a contract with one designated school or a choice to attend any out-of-district school.

At the time the appeal was authorized by the RSU 21 board, then-Superintendent Katie Hawes said allowing students to continue attending Thornton Academy Middle School would divide the district and create inefficiencies.

Thursday’s ruling said that while the concerns are valid, the current language of the law doesn’t allow for them to be taken into consideration in determining whether students should be allowed to continue attending a designated school after reorganization.

It also comes as RSU 21 is considering whether to rezone its elementary schools to balance out enrollment numbers, an effort that also has been contentious in recent months.

“It would be a whole other fight if our kids were in elementary school,” said Jesse Carll, the Arundel resident. “I can’t even imagine what it’s like for parents who have elementary school kids right now.”

The school board’s 2016 vote did not affect Arundel high school students, who continue to have the choice to attend Thornton Academy, Kennebunk High School or Biddeford High School.

 

Rachel Ohm — 207-791-6388

[email protected] 

Twitter: @rachel_ohm

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