With very little fanfare, the West Geauga Board of Education stated its intent to continue pursuing a territory transfer with the Newbury Local School District.
Around 65 audience members filled the board meeting room Monday night, a slightly larger than usual crowd, but no one from the public elected to address the board during the time allotted for public comments.
Following a 33-minute executive session entered to discuss personnel matters and matters required to be kept confidential by law, board President Ben Kotowski read a resolution requesting the Geauga County Educational Service Center propose the territory transfer where Newbury would lose its identity as a district and become a part of West G.
The board approved the resolution unanimously with no discussion and little reaction from the public. A group of Newbury residents opposed to the territory transfer walked out of the meeting following the vote.
West Geauga Superintendent Richard Markwardt noted after the meeting that the board’s vote is still an intermediate step in the process that has been studied by both districts for several years and discussed in the county for decades.
“At this stage of the game, what would need to happen is for the county ESC to propose the territory transfer and they would gather the requisite materials, they would send the materials to West Geauga for review, they would send it to Newbury for review, ultimately they would send it to the state and ask the state to review those materials,” he said.
The Newbury Board of Education passed a similar resolution by a 3-2 margin in January requesting the ESC propose the territory transfer.
“It’s a great day for students in both districts. We thank the West G Board of Education for a continued partnership in this process,” Newbury board President Maggie Zock said in a phone interview Tuesday. “This is a great next step in a very carefully thought out process. We are looking forward to creating a positive transition for our students and both communities.”
After the Monday meeting, Mr. Kotowski said that while the resolution passed was not technically required by law since county ESCs are free to propose territory transfers as they please, Geauga’s ESC has been involved in the discussions with Newbury and West G from the start and made it clear that the governing board would only move forward with the transfer if both districts were on board.
“The thing we’re trying to do is just say we support this, and we’re trying to tell the community of Newbury that we want you here and we support you and we support your children. That’s really what we’re about,” Mr. Kotowski said of the resolution.
The earliest the ESC could propose the territory transfer so that it takes place on July 1, 2020 as proposed would be July 1 of this year due to legal requirements. Once the ESC governing board takes formal action proposing the transfer, Newbury residents would have 30 days to gather signatures to petition for a referendum to block the territory transfer, Dr. Markwardt said.
“So at the end of that time if they did not accumulate the required signatures, it would go back to the West Geauga board for a vote as to whether West Geauga would be willing to accept Newbury,” he said. “If there were enough signatures gathered to ensure referendum, then that vote would not take place until the spring.”
Dr. Markwardt said the earliest the territory transfer could be finalized would be around October, with the latest in March following a potential referendum vote.
While both districts have continued discussions and studies of various ways the territory transfer would affect students, personnel, curriculum, busing and more over the course of this year, West G’s board last took formal action regarding Newbury in December when it passed a resolution of intent expressing a desire to continue discussions with Newbury. At that time, the board stated stipulations of the talks continuing were dependent on Newbury reducing its staffing to appropriate levels based on student enrollment and Newbury having a cash balance at a minimum of what the district’s 2018 five-year forecast projects at the end of the 2019-2020 school year, a little more than $3 million.
Mr. Kotowski said West G cannot put conditions and demands on Newbury at this stage of negotiations since it is the county ESC’s decision, but the board feels comfortable moving forward. He said the cash balance stipulation was not due to West G being money hungry but rather due to the costs associated with assimilating the estimated 270 Newbury students to West Geauga, including joint activities between both student bodies and the cost of purchasing new textbooks.
“We still feel pretty good about it because anytime you do any kind of deal which involves this complexity, you want to communicate that you want certain things. It’s just we can’t demand those things, and it would be irresponsible to do this without a certain amount of money coming in because we’re going to take on some extra costs,” he said. “They’re not going to be incredibly massive but they are going to be significant.”
Mr. Kotowski said he believes the majority of community members both from West Geauga and Newbury support the territory transfer because taxes will go down and Newbury students will have more opportunities at West G, but he understands and empathizes with those opposed to the transfer.
“Some of the people who are upset about it are people who love their community, they’re active in their community, and so it’s understandable that when you see that kind of loss of the Black Knights tradition, of the school that they went to and the school that their children went to, it’s perfectly understandable that they’d be upset about it,” he said. “These people are people who are really, really invested in their community, and if this territory transfer goes through, we want you to be part of West Geauga, because we need people who are invested in the community. People who really care about their community, their school district, about their children, you’re exactly the kind of people we need.”