Court: Washington Twp. can ditch Dover Area district

Dover Area High School in Dover Township, Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Washington Township can leave Dover Area School District, a state judge ruled Thursday.

In his ruling, Commonwealth Judge Kevin Brobson wrote the state Board of Education was in error in 2019 when it denied the request from township residents. 

"The Board improperly pitted one district's existing curriculum and offerings against the other's and made inconvenience and disruption to Dover SD the paramount focus of its legal analysis," Brobson concluded.

Brobson's opinion reversed a Jan. 10, 2019, decision stemming from a nearly decade-long court battle dating back to 2012.

That's when The Washington Township Education Coalition — a coalition of township residents — first petitioned the county's Common Pleas court to abandon Dover, arguing the education was better at Northern York County School District, as were the property taxes.

And with the closure of Dover's Kralltown Elementary School in 2011 — the school closest in proximity to Washington Township — the coalition argued it made more sense for the township to attach itself to Northern.

More:A point of controversy, Dover Area elementary might have a buyer

That school building was recently sold to Kimberly and Tom Kretzmer, who are transforming it into a residence to care for their seven children with severe medical needs.

Under the coalition's plan, Washington Township students would attend Northern.

"Finally, hardworking people can invest in a school district that reinvests back to the Washington Township community," said Washington Township Education Coalition President Ralph McGregor in a news release following Brobson's opinion.

Vice President John Peters said the township's most vulnerable elementary students will no longer have to spend two hours on buses to get to Dover's schools.

In 2014, the state education secretary agreed the move would be a benefit to the township's students and would not create any negative repercussions on the students in Northern or Dover.

The Common Pleas court created the Washington Township Independent School District that year, which made several attempts to sever itself from Dover.

But the state Board of Education denied the request several times, in 2015, 2017 and 2019.

More:State board again says Washington Twp. must stay in Dover schools

Dover officials countered their district could face revenue losses of $2.3 million, along with losses of programs or staff, or needed curriculum modification.

Washington Township is in the northwest part of the county, situated between Northern's district on the township's north end and Dover on its south end, and has about 250 students, or 7% of Dover's student population.

York County school district map
York County municpality map

With the loss of that number of students, then-high school Principal Jared Wastler testified in 2018 that his school would not be able to offer its current course selection on an annual basis.

Similarly, then-principal of North Salem Elementary, Christopher Cobb, noted that the loss of students would likely cause the school to reduce its teaching staff, and by extension, reading specialists and learning support staff.

“The state board felt that they had discretion,” said Daniel Fennick, of Spring Garden Township-based Anderson, Converse and Fennick, attorney for the coalition, when reached Thursday.

He noted that the board was trying to ensure the most desirable outcome for Dover rather than adhering to legal standards.

Even if that district can adjust its student population in the years following the township's departure, that "cannot negate the disruption the transfer will have on the District's existing programs and opportunities," the state board's hearing officer wrote following testimony in 2018.

Brobson said the state board did not interpret its standards correctly, including its determination that the transfer would not meet educational needs for both students.

Additionally, the new Northern — with the addition of the township — does not need to meet the characteristics of a community, as the board  of education determined, as long as it did not break up existing communities, Brobson said.

To give both districts enough time to adjust their finances and prepare for the transfer of students, the transition will take place in the 2021-22 school year.

When reached Friday, Dover spokesperson Brad Perkins did not know if the district would seek an appeal.

"The Dover Area School District has no comment at this time as we are currently performing an in-depth review of the report from the Commonwealth court," he said in an email.

Brobson directed the board to officially redraw district lines and transfer the matter back to the Common Pleas court to implement the reassignment.