Thornton Academy in Saco Credit: Public domain

ARUNDEL — Nearly two dozen Arundel parents and Thornton Academy are filing suit against Regional School Unit 21 seeking a legal ruling to affirm Arundel’s right to choose between Middle School of the Kennebunks and Thornton Academy Middle School.

In February, RSU 21 lawyers issued a legal opinion in stating that Arundel middle school students have no legal right to attend Thornton Academy Middle School after this year.

Thornton Academy Headmaster Rene Menard sent a letter to Arundel families via email on Tuesday alerting them of the legal action. In the letter Menard says, the “Arundel parents filing this suit are seeking to protect their fundamental right to make the best educational decision for their children whether that is TAMS or MSK.”

RSU 21 Superintendent Katie Hawes said district officials were not surprised by the lawsuit.

“We did anticipate it might happen given that the stakes are so high for Thornton Academy,” Hawes said. “We thought they would likely challenge it. It will be good to have this resolved at this point.”

Hawes said the district stands by its belief that the issue of choice was decided in the arbitration ruling in 2011. She said the district has insurance for legal claims brought against it, and RSU 21 will pay the deductible. Insurance will cover the legal fees of Drummond and Woodsum, the legal firm that will represent the district in the dispute, she said.

At its March 7 meeting, the RSU 21 Board of Directors voted to allow sixth and seventh grade students currently enrolled at TAMS, and Arundel fifth-graders who want to attend next year to finish their middle school education there. Board member Catherine Rush from Arundel pushed for the board to also include the siblings of these students, but the board rejected this proposal.

The new policy would mean that all Arundel middle school students would be assigned to Middle School of the Kennebunks starting in 2017. Families could choose to send students to TAMS at their own cost.

Both the legal opinion and board decision have left some in Arundel upset about the abrupt change. A group of Arundel residents turned in a petition with more than 300 signatures earlier last month to put a proposal to withdraw from RSU 21 before voters in June.

In his letter, Menard said Thornton Academy officials are confident that the legal action taken “will uphold your legal right to middle school choice, an educational right that we understand is so fundamental to the identity of your community.”

Menard could not be immediately reached for comment.