BAINBRIDGE — In the wake of township officials closing the Chagrin Valley School at Kelly’s Working Well Farm due to health and fire safety violations, some parents are speaking out in support of the school.
Parents like Dr. Nate Bergman of Beachwood said the school offers a non-traditional environment that nurtures independent learners and has been beneficial to his son.
Chris and Tanja Courtiol of Bainbridge, who home school their two children and attend the farm school three days a week, said the farm is an integral part of the community.
One mother objected to how the township began its investigation. Annie Demko of Chagrin Falls, who has two sons attending the school, noted that the fire department came out without warning and put the children in ambulances and then a school bus while officials inspected the property.
“It was pretty traumatic for the children,” Mrs. Demko said.
Concerns arose on Nov. 7 when Bainbridge Fire Department representative William Lovell inspected the property at 16519 Franklin St. owned by Kelly Clark, who runs the farm and school. He reported conditions that constitute serious hazards as defined in the Ohio Administrative Code and Ohio Fire Code.
“We are concerned with the unapproved cooking, heating and electrical conditions in fully combustible structures,” Mr. Lovell said explaining why the school had to be closed down immediately.
Some of the issues documented in his report include electrical hazards; numerous heating and ventilation hazards; unapproved cooking appliances; improper storage and use of flammable, combustible and hazardous materials; use of construction materials that fail to meet fire code requirements as well as the lack of fire detection and alerting devices and exit lighting.
Bainbridge Zoning Inspector Karen Endres sent a letter to Mrs. Clark in October stating that a conditional use zoning permit is required for the private school located in a residential district.
Attorney Emily Collins has filed a request for a declaratory judgment in Geauga County Common Pleas Court stating the education program is protected from township interference under the Ohio agritourism law.
Ms. Clark said this week that she and her husband William Rowe are appealing the township zoning department’s action because she offers supplement programs to the 34 farm school students and thus does not need certification.
“We do want to make it safe,” she said of the facility, adding that she and her husband are working on getting an electrician to come in. “The goal is to get it up to code.
“Yet we are still a farm and we want people to be allowed to come; however, there are signs posted that do not allow people in, so basically, we are closed.
“We believe our systems are safe,” she added. “We stand by our buildings and heating systems.”
Meanwhile, David Sage, director of environmental health at the Geauga County Department of Health, and Amanda O’Brien, field sanitarian, inspected the farm and found numerous state and county health code violations.
They noted among other matters, three sides of the outdoor kitchen and prep area open to the elements and animal activity. There are dirt floors with straw in the outdoor kitchen area and there is no three-compartment sink to wash, rinse and sanitize utensils and equipment, health department officials said. There is no designated handwashing sink, according to the report.
Health inspectors said that the kitchen area includes non-commercial grade equipment mandated for a public use facility. The pizza oven is made of straw and clay. They also noted safety violations with the powered burners, freezer and microwave.
The refrigerator had unidentifiable food stored in mason jars, and unidentifiable homemade canned food, the report states, adding that the refrigerator had a strong odor as well as damaged gaskets. The shelves and fan guards had debris build-up.
The stainless steel prep tables were stored out in the elements next to an animal enclosure, inspectors said, and animal cages with feces were stored in the outdoor kitchen area. Unprocessed wool was stored in bags next to the stainless steel tables and microwave, according to the report.
As to the indoor kitchen area, inspectors said that the floors, walls and ceilings were not smooth, easy cleanable surfaces as required by code. There was excessive dust, debris and clutter build-up throughout the entire kitchen area, and there were empty cardboard boxes throughout the area, according to the report.
Non-commercial grade equipment was in the kitchen, including a stove powered by a propane tank and a portable cast-iron propane burner in the middle of the kitchen, inspectors stated.
There was excessive food debris build-up in the cooking equipment and chemicals, including sodium hydroxide, stored next to vegetables, inspectors stated. Animals had access to the dry storage area where mouse excrement was found in the cabinets and drawers, according to the report.
Based on the current state of the facility, official said the health department would not be able to license the facility unless renovations were made in accordance to the Ohio Uniform Food Code. They advised that if the school is providing lunches or food for fundraisers, a food license must be obtained from the county health department.
All the inspection reports by the fire and health departments were filed with the Geauga County Prosecutor’s Office and are available to the public.
Kelly’s Working Well Farm opened in 2012 when Ms. Clark said she wanted to create a place for residents to learn about sustainable farming on the 6 acres of land. The farm first offered summer camps for children in 2013 and then opened the year-round school in 2016.
Parents are on board with the mission of the school.
Marti Stuedle of Oberlin home schools her two children who have taken part in the farm classes. “I volunteer there and I feel completely safe, and I feel my child who is 7 is safe there,” she said. Her other son, now 14, had attended the school since it started.
“It is wonderful for people who value agriculture and want to learn about what needs to be done on a farm. They have more awareness of where food comes from,” Mrs. Stuedle said. Her children have helped raise goats, lambs and pigs. “You know that they are well taken care of,” she said of the farm animals.
Dr. Bergman said the school “is a farm that happens to be an environment where people, including children, can learn.
“My wife and I would of course like to optimize the safety at Kelly’s Working Well Farm, and we were encouraged that the Bainbridge Township authorities appeared to be willing to work with the farm’s leadership in that regard,” he said.
“But recommending that Kelly’s Working Well Farm act in compliance with standards that reflect a traditional school environment fails to understand the mission, vision and impact of Kelly’s Working Well Farm,” Dr. Bergman said. “This is a non-traditional learning environment. We opted into this environment and feel generally comfortable with the safety at the farm,” Dr. Bergman said.
“In fact, our own son appears to have more respect and reverence for potentially dangerous tools and scenarios as a result of his experiences on the farm,” he said.
Mr. Courtiol of Bainbridge said that his family “found a place where our kids can be kids.” He has researched the Sudbury model of education, offered at Chagrin Valley School, based on Sudbury Valley in Framingham, Massachusetts and founded in 1968. “There are 50 years of data that have proven results,” he said.
“I flew to Boston to see the school. The energy of the school is wonderful. You feel optimistic and positive about the future and the next generation,” he said.
One of the important tenants of the Sudbury model is that self-directed learning empowers children to create self-actualization, Mr. Courtiol said.
He added that “Kelly and the entire community at the school wants to very much work with the fire department and the township to make improvements to the facilities,” he said.
“At the same time, the parents recognize and understand the importance of allowing their children to face and address real-world situations,” Mr. Courtiol added. “In the end, we feel these situations will help our children gain responsibility, maturity and accountability, all qualities that will help them be more content and productive adults.
“I strongly believe that down the road, this will be a benefit for the school and the farm,” Mr. Courtiol said.