2010-08-04 / Front Page

Arbitrator: RSU 21 violated TAMS contract

District must pay Thornton tuition for Arundel students who attend MSK this fall
City Editor

ARUNDEL — The 19 Arundel students who have expressed an interest in attending Middle School of the Kennebunks this fall will be allowed to do so, but the school district must pay Thornton Academy Middle School their tuition just the same.

The legally binding decision, released Tuesday, is the result of last week's arbitration proceedings between Regional School Unit 21 and Thornton Academy Middle School in Saco.

Arbitrator Patrick C. Coughlan found that the RSU 21 school board's recent decision to allow up to 45 Arundel students to attend MSK this fall was is in violation of the unit's contract to send Arundel students to Thornton Academy Middle School. The RSU, which consolidated Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Arundel schools in 2009, has taken on the Town of Arundel's 10-year contract with the middle school, which ends in 2016.

“The clear weight of the evidence established that, at the time the contract was entered into, both Thornton and Arundel intended that all sixth, seventh and eighth grade students residing in Arundel, and for whom public school tuition would be paid, would attend Thornton,” Coughlan's order states.

As well, Coughlan said it was clear that the Thornton board based its end of the agreement on the financial expectation of having all Arundel students at TAMS.

“Thornton's providing of a new middle school facility for the children of Arundel, at Thornton's sole expense, would have made no sense,” his order states.

In a press release from RSU 21 Tuesday, Superintendent of Schools Andrew Dolloff said the district is “prepared to pay tuition to the academy, as ordered by the arbitrator, to provide school choice.

“Although we were hoping to provide more students from Arundel with the option to attend the public middle school in their new district, we're excited that these 19 students will have the opportunity to attend MSK.”

Only those 19 who have already expressed interest will be allowed the option. Of those, 12 are going into the sixth grade, three into the seventh grade and four into the eighth grade. Per the arbitrator's order, RSU 21 must pay TAMS the full public school tuition for each of these students who choose to attend MSK next year.

For the sixth and seventh grade students among the 19, the arbitrator ruled that the RSU must also pay Thornton 75 percent of their tuition for each year they are enrolled at MSK beyond 2010-11. For those 19 students, this provision will hold even if the contract is terminated, due to the expectation that students who attend MSK will continue on to Kennebunk High School instead of Thornton Academy, which would cost TA future tuition payments. Arundel students have high school choice of any school in the area, but past trends have shown that the majority of students tend to pursue high school in the same district as their middle school.

With TAMS tuition set at about $7,800 per student, Thornton estimates that the RSU will owe a total of $315,384 if all 19 students enroll in MSK and remain there for their entire middle school education.

“TA's faculty and staff would much prefer to serve all Arundel students, as the contract states, than to receive tuition dollars for those attending MSK,” Thornton Academy spokeswoman Jen Hass said Tuesday. She noted in her press release that the tuition funds would most likely go toward educational improvements at the middle school.

“We're delighted by the ruling,” said Thornton Academy Headmaster Carl Stasio, Tuesday. “The whole position of what ”˜all' meant is the position we've taken from the get-go. Frankly, (the ruling is) much more than we could have hoped for. This is an overwhelming victory for TAMS.”

In June, the RSU 21 Board unanimously voted to terminate the TAMS contract after the 2010-11 school year. The cost to buy out the contract will be approximately $1.12 million at that time, said Dolloff, but is expected to save the district money in the long run. District voters will have to approve the expenditure and Arundel parents would retain the option of sending their children to TAMS even if the contract is bought out, per state law.

“As with any arbitration ruling, there are plusses and minuses,” said Dolloff, in his statement Tuesday. “Obviously, I look forward to the day when all parents in Arundel will have middle school choice.”

Per the order, the RSU must provide Thornton with a list of all Arundel students who are enrolled in MSK, along with the full tuition payments, within 30 days of the beginning of each school year. As well, RSU 21 is “prohibited from soliciting, accepting or enrolling any sixth, seventh or eighth grade students from Arundel who are publicly tuitioned.”

Thornton Academy Middle School will host an informational meeting for Arundel parents on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 7 p.m. at the Dutch Elm Golf Course in Arundel, at which Headmaster Stasio will explain the provisions of the arbitrator's order and answer questions.

— City Editor Kristen Schulze Muszynski can be contacted at 282-1535, Ext. 322 or kristenm@journaltribune.com.

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