Saco’s contract with Thornton Academy under scrutiny as town seeks withdrawal from school district

Posted Sept. 03, 2013, at 10:23 a.m.
Last modified Sept. 05, 2013, at 7:06 p.m.

SACO, Maine — The commissioner of education has granted conditional approval to a proposed plan for Saco to withdraw from Regional School Unit 23. He is asking the withdrawal committee to make some changes before a plan can go out to voters in November.

Commissioner Stephen Bowen notified city and RSU officials in a letter earlier this week and has set a public hearing to be held 7 p.m. Sept. 18, at Saco City Hall.

In the letter, Bowen said final approval of the proposal is contingent upon changes that must be made.

One change would require a newly elected school board, instead of a transition board comprised of Saco RSU board members seated at the time of withdrawal, to have authority over decisions such as hiring a superintendent, according to Department of Education Deputy Commissioner Jim Rier.

Another change involves a proposed 10-year contract between the city and Thornton Academy, a private school that educates Saco high school students. Bowen is asking the withdrawal committee to eliminate the proposed termination clause that would have allowed Thornton Academy to give a two-year notice to terminate the contract if there are significant changes in funding of education, according to Rier.

Rier said there needs to be assurance that Saco high schoolers are guaranteed a place to go to school for the next 10 years. He suggested the proposal allow for renegotiation between the city and Thornton Academy.

Withdrawal Committee member Vangel Cotsis said the committee has drafted the required changes and will meet formally to approve them.

Mayor Mark Johnston recently wrote a letter to area media stating he did not support the suggested contract between the city and Thornton Academy.

Johnston said the proposed contract will increase costs for Saco citizens, weaken protections for special education students and eliminate any requirement of Thornton Academy to report to the city or the school board regarding its performance.

“Backroom dealings and special interests have backed our city into a corner where the only solution is to vote ‘no’ on withdrawal or cede complete control to a private institution with no checks and balances,” said Johnston.

Johnston also took issue with the proposed termination clause the commissioner asked to have removed.

Cotsis said the committee is satisfied with the results of the contract and believes the speed with which the Department of Education conditionally approved the contract is testament to the hard work members did, focusing on the needs of taxpayers and cost effectiveness of education. Cotsis said Saco is falling behind other communities because elementary teachers have been unnecessarily operating on a bare bones budget.

“The mayor’s objection to the contract has much more to do with state law excluding him from the process than the content of the contract itself,” said Cotsis. “The Withdrawal Committee has placed the best interests of the students and the citizens of Saco far ahead of any individual or special interest group’s agenda.”

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