The Geauga County Educational Service Center backtracked last week, giving new life to a petition drive to stop the territory transfer of Newbury schools to West Geauga.

The ESC governing board unanimously rescinded its July 23 vote that would have kept the two districts on schedule for a deciding vote Sept. 3 on the territory transfer. The board then reaffirmed its initial vote to continue the process toward the territory transfer.

ESC Superintendent Jennifer Felker explained a repeat vote was necessary to resolve conflicting legal opinions about when residents could begin collecting signatures on a petition that calls for the territory transfer process to be brought to a halt. “This action of the board will erase any confusion related to the territory transfer timeline and associated activities,” Ms. Felker wrote in an email, explaining the reason for the re-vote.

Newbury School Board member Martin Sanders said had the board not acted, those seeking petitions would have had two weeks to collect signatures. The board’s vote last week will now reset the clock and provide a 30-day window to collect signatures.

Board Attorney Rebecca C. Princehorn explained the confusion over the timetable stemmed from discussions with Ms. Felker about what that referendum vote would ask voters. She said both believed that the vote would have asked voters whether they preferred to have Newbury merge with Berkshire School District, rather than West Geauga. She accepted the blame for the misunderstanding. “It was mine,” she said in accepting responsibility for what she termed a “miscue.”

“It seemed clear to do a do-over,” Ms. Princehorn said.

Ms. Felker said the issue was “misinterpreted” by Ms. Princehorn during discussions over the past year and a half.

The board estimated that a successful petition to bring the issue to the ballot will require about 1,300 valid signatures.

Ms. Felker said the petition will be initially submitted to her and then forwarded to the Geauga County Board of Elections to determine its validity.

If determined to be valid, it will be then returned to the ESC board that will then instruct the Geauga County Board of Elections to place the issue on the March primary ballot.

Prior to the board taking action, it heard from Mr. Sanders and Fran Dittrich, each of whom thanked the board for rescinding its initial action and taking a second vote.

Mr. Sanders told the board the issue was moving so quickly it was unfair to the children, school staff and the community.

He called it “just round one of many things we missed.”

He said there is already a campaign beginning in the community that is urging people not to sign the petitions, but added that giving the community the opportunity to have a say in what happens to the school is the “most American thing.”

Mr. Sanders said the issue of the territory transfer should be decided by the community, not three people,” referring to the three new school board members, who cast the deciding votes in a 3-2 decision. He said those three members showed no care for the affected children or staff.

“This has ripped my heart out,” Mr. Sanders said.

He said he has been urged to continue fighting the territory transfer by youth that he has been coaching since they were in kindergarten. He said they reminded him that he always told them to fight for what they believed in.

He said the territory transfer could establish a precedent throughout the state in which districts such as Newbury that is not under state academic probation or financial watch to be dissolved because a majority of the school board members gain power and carry out their personal agendas.

“We’re small, so what,” Mr. Sanders said. “We give another avenue for kids that don’t want a big school.”

He said he will accept whatever the voters decide. “If it’s going to go away, let’s have it go in the right way.”

Mrs. Dittrich also thanked the board, noting that petition gatherers will now have a full 30 days to seek signatures for the petitions. “They want it done right and you are doing it the right way,” she told the board.

Joseph Koziol Jr. started his career in journalism in 1981. He joined the Solon Times in 1992 and covered the city of Solon for 10 years. An award winning reporter, Mr. Koziol has been covering Geauga County since 2012.

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