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Dover Area school board to ask Pa. Supreme Court to keep Washington Twp. in district

Holly Feeser of East Berlin speaks during a meeting at Dover Elementary School Tuesday, June 16, 2020, in favor of a vote to approve an appeal of the Commonwealth Court's decision to allow Washington Township to transfer school districts. Bill Kalina photo

Dover Area School District will appeal a court decision earlier this month allowing Washington Township to secede from the district.

To applause from 70 or more attendees at Tuesday's school board meeting in the Dover Elementary School gym, the board unanimously approved petitioning the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to overturn the recent ruling.

A state judge on June 4 reversed earlier denials from the state Board of Education in a nearly decadelong case in which the township sought a transfer to Northern York County School District.

Lower taxes, better education and proximity were the reasons for leaving back when a petition of more than 1,400 signatures was signed and taken to court in 2012.

More:Court: Washington Twp. can ditch Dover Area district

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

Before Tuesday's vote, school board member Steve Cook questioned the motivation of the petitioners.

"Is this really about what's best for our kids?" he asked, adding that if that were true, students would be the ones who wanted to leave.

A number of parents and students spoke out against the move, and board President Nathan Eifert held up a stack of emails he had received from families in support of the appeal.

Dover Area School Board President Nathan Eifert shows a stack of petitions in favor of a vote to approve an appeal of the Commonwealth Court's decision to allow Washington Township to transfer school districts, during a meeting at Dover Elementary School Tuesday, June 16, 2020. Bill Kalina photo

In his opinion earlier this month, Commonwealth Court Judge Kevin Brobson argued that the education was sufficient at both districts to warrant no issue with the move, and the strain on Dover adjusting should not have factored into the state Board of Education's decision.

Dover stands to lose about $2.3 million from the transfer, as well as losses of programs or staff, or needed curriculum modification, officials have testified.

Lower taxes was a primary reason that the Washington Township Education Coalition wanted the shift.

But parents of Dover students in the township say the coalition did not take into account the devastating effects such a change would have on their children.

Academics, sports and activities are based on relationships, and students having to switch in the middle of middle or high school or before senior year after an entire career at the district would be unfair, they argued.

“We didn’t ask for this as parents of students. Our voice is very small,” said Holly Feeser, a member of the Keep Us In Dover Schools group that is opposed to the move.

Following social distancing guidelines, a public meeting at Dover Elementary School was held Tuesday, June 16, 2020, regarding a vote to approve an appeal of the Commonwealth Court's decision to allow Washington Township to transfer school districts. Bill Kalina photo

Parents make up roughly 125 families of the 2,000 taxable residents, she said in a phone call prior to the meeting, and the court's recent decision was based on decade-old information from parents who have already moved out of the district.

"It's not right that a petition signed eight years ago should determine the fate of our children today," said township resident Lydia Nailor during public comment Tuesday.

Some residents said the petition was deceptive in that it was not clear about the district move but simply asked signers to support lower taxes.

At 17.47 mills, Northern has the second-lowest millage in the county, while Dover's millage rate is 22.64. For the owner of a $100,000 home, that would be $1,747 and $2,264 in taxes each year, respectively. 

The Washington Township Education Coalition could not be reached for comment. But the coalition's Facebook page lists a number of reasons for the transfer, including quality education.

Eifert said performance has improved considerably since the petition was filed, citing the Dover Area district's recent school performance profiles. North Salem Elementary outranks Northern's schools and is ranked among the highest in the county.

The impetus for the coalition's petition was Kralltown Elementary's closure in 2011 — as it's in the center of the township and closest to the northern residents who have a longer commute to Dover's schools.

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More:Family creates home out of Kralltown Elementary School

Cook said the decision to close Kralltown ignited a lot of anger and passion in township residents at the time, and a drive to "settle the score."

His concern is that any group can come forward with a petition to move to a more desirable district, which doesn't create a lot of stability for public education.

The district's solicitor said it will be six to eight months before the state Supreme Court decides if it will even hear the case, but if the Commonwealth Court opinion is upheld, there is no opportunity for appeal. 

In that case, township students would move to Northern schools in the 2021-22 school year.