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MERCER COUNTY School petition will go to court



Published: Sat, February 8, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



No one knows what the cost may be, but everyone involved agrees the petition signers could be required to pay it.

By HAROLD GWIN

VINDICATOR SHARON BUREAU

MERCER, Pa. -- A judge will decide if signers of a petition calling for Wheatland to secede from the Farrell Area School District will foot the bill for the costs of fighting the legal battle.

The petition will be the subject of a court hearing Feb. 24-25 before Judge Francis J. Fornelli of Mercer County Common Pleas Court.

All of those who signed the document, about 250 people, will be required to attend the hearing to testify that they did sign the petition and do want Wheatland to secede from the Farrell Area School District.

The petition was circulated and filed by a group calling itself Wheatland's Educational Alternatives Task Force (WhEAT). It asks that Wheatland be allowed to join the West Middlesex Area School District.

Farrell school officials oppose the move, and the resulting cost of the legal battle could be high, said Atty. James Nevant, representing the school district.

He declined to hazard a guess on the expense, but pointed out that hiring experts and putting in court appearances will quickly add up.

Court's decision

Judge Fornelli will decide who will pay those court costs, expert and legal fees, and related expenses.

He hasn't made a ruling in that area, but he said cases like this tend to get expensive. The bill could be levied on those who signed the petition that started the process, even if they win, he added.

Atty. Joann Jofery, representing WhEAT, said members are aware that they are at risk for those expenses.

It is her responsibility to get the petition signers to court, and Jofery said she doesn't intend to use subpoenas but will rely on people's willingness to participate, unless they need a subpoena to get someone out of work.

Judge Fornelli said it is Farrell's right to insist that all who signed the petition understand what it means and still support it.

The court must determine if more than half of Wheatland's "taxable inhabitants" want to make the change.

There is no law describing exactly what a taxable inhabitant is, and the judge said he will have to make that decision, too.

The judge said he will first determine the number of people who want the change and then determine if that is sufficient to make the petition valid by representing more than half of the taxable inhabitants.

The hearing begins at 9 a.m. Feb. 24.

If the petition is deemed to be valid, the issue goes to the Pennsylvania Secretary of Education to decide if the merits of the case warrant the change in districts.

The issue would then come back to Judge Fornelli to determine how much of Farrell's $2.385 million debt would go to West Middlesex to pay and how much state subsidy would be transferred from Farrell to West Middlesex.

Those issues would be put on the back burner should either side decide to appeal the education secretary's decision.




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