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Thornton Academy v. Regional School Unit 21

Supreme Court of Maine

July 18, 2019

THORNTON ACADEMY et al.
v.
REGIONAL SCHOOL UNIT 21 et al.

          Argued: June 12, 2019

          Richard A. Spencer, Esq. (orally), Melissa A. Hewey, Esq., and David M. Kallin, Esq., Drummond Woodsum, Portland, for appellants Regional School Unit 21 and the Board of Regional School Unit 21

          Ronald W. Schneider Jr., Esq. (orally), Sara Hellstedt, Esq., and Tara A. Walker, Esq., Bernstein Shur, Portland, for appellees Thornton Academy et al.

          Panel: SAUFLEY, C.J., and MEAD, GORMAN, JABAR, and HUMPHREY, JJ.

          GORMAN, J.

         [¶1] Regional School Unit 21 and the Board of Regional School Unit 21 (collectively, RSU 21) appeal from a judgment entered by the Superior Court (York County, Douglas, J.) on a complaint filed by Thornton Academy and residents of Arundel[1] in connection with RSU 21's decision not to allow Arundel middle school students to attend Thornton Academy at public expense. RSU 21 contends that the court misinterpreted 20-A M.R.S. § 1479 (2018) to allow middle school students who live in Arundel to attend Thornton Academy at public expense. We affirm the judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND

         [¶2] On April 6, 2016, Thornton Academy and the Arundel residents instituted an action against RSU 21 in the Superior Court after RSU 21 decided that all Arundel public middle school students must attend the Middle School of the Kennebunks (MSK) in Kennebunk and that public funds cannot be used for those students to attend Thornton Academy in Saco. Thornton Academy and the Arundel residents sought a declaratory judgment that RSU 21 incorrectly interpreted and applied 20-A M.R.S. § 1479(3) (A) in making its decision, see 14 M.R.S. § 5954 (2018), and they sought review of RSU 21's decision on the same basis pursuant to M.R. Civ. P. 80B.[2] RSU 21 counterclaimed solely against Thornton Academy, seeking a declaratory judgment that RSU 21 correctly interpreted section 1479(3)(A).

         [¶3] The court made the following findings of fact based on the parties' stipulated record. In 2006, the Arundel School Department (ASD), with referendum approval, entered into a ten-year contract with Thornton Academy that called for all Arundel students in grades six through eight to attend Thornton Academy. After school reorganization legislation was enacted in 2007, see P.L. 2007, ch. 240, § XXXX-13 (effective June 7, 2007), the ASD merged with Maine School Administrative District 71 to form RSU 21, effective July 1, 2009. MSK is in RSU 21. RSU 21 declined to execute a new contract with Thornton Academy and, in March of 2016, three months before the contract expired, RSU 21 adopted a resolution identifying MSK as the only publicly funded middle school and denying the students the ability to attend Thornton Academy at public expense.

         [¶4] The court concluded-as to both the declaratory judgment claims and the Rule 80B action-that, pursuant to 20-A M.R.S. § l479(3)(A), RSU 21 must continue to allow Arundel middle school students to attend Thornton Academy at public expense. The court denied RSU 21's subsequent motion to amend and to reconsider the judgment. See M.R. Civ. P. 52(b), 59(e). RSU 21 appeals.

         II. DISCUSSION

         [¶5] RSU 21 challenges the court's interpretation of 20-A M.R.S. § 1479(3)(A) to require RSU 21 to continue to allow Arundel middle school students to attend Thornton Academy at public expense, notwithstanding the expiration of the contract. We interpret section 1479 de novo as a matter of law, starting with the plain language of the statute as the best indicator of the Legislature's intent. See Wawenock, LLC v. Dep't of Transp., 2018 ME 83, ¶ 7, 187 A.3d 609; Me. Sch. Admin. Dist. No. 37 v. Pineo, 2010 ME 11, ¶ 16, 988 A.2d 987. Unless the statute itself suggests a contrary legislative intent, we give words in a statute their "plain, common, and ordinary meaning, such as people of common intelligence would usually ascribe to them." S.D. Warren Co. v. Bd. of Envtl. Prot, 2005 ME 27, ¶ 15, 868 A.2d 210 (quotation marks omitted). If the plain language is unambiguous, we interpret the statute according to that language alone, "unless the result is illogical or absurd." Wawenock, LLC, 2018 ME 83, ¶ 7, 187 A.3d 609 (quotation marks omitted). If the language is ambiguous-that is, if it is reasonably susceptible to multiple interpretations- we will consider other indicia of the Legislature's intent in enacting it, including its legislative history. Id. ¶¶ 7, 15.

         [¶6] By constitutional and statutory mandate, every municipality in Maine must provide for a free public education from kindergarten through grade twelve for all children whose parents reside in that municipality. Me. Const, art. VIII, pt. 1, § 1; 20-A M.R.S. §§ 2, 1451, 1479, 5202(2) (2018); see Sch. Admin. Dist. No. 1 v. Comm'r, Dep't of Educ, 659 A.2d 854, 857 (Me. 1995). In light of the geographic limitations on and the financial burdens created by such a requirement, however, the Legislature has long permitted any school district that has no school of its own to satisfy the public education requirement by alternative means-(1) by contracting with a public school in another school district or a private school that meets certain requirements (a school privileges contract), see 20-A M.R.S. §§ 2701-2703, 2951, 5203(3), 5204(3) (2018); R.S. ch. 41, § 105 (1954); R.S. ch. 15, § 62 (1904), or (2) by allowing parents to choose another district's public school or an approved private school for their children to attend at public expense in the absence of a school privileges contract (school choice), see 20-A M.R.S. §§ 2951, 5203(4), 5204(4) (2018); R.S. ch. 41, § 107 (1954); R.S. ch. 15, § 63 (1904).

         [¶7] The statute at issue here-20-A M.R.S. § 1479-has provisions regarding both school privileges contracts and school choice as applied to ...


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