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WHEATLAND, PA. Group fails to persuade court in Farrell schools secession bid



Published: Sat, March 1, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



The court ruled that the group failed to come up with enough signers.

By HAROLD GWIN

VINDICATOR SHARON BUREAU

WHEATLAND, Pa. -- WhEAT members say they may have lost the battle but the war isn't over.

Judge Francis J. Fornelli of Mercer County Common Pleas Court ruled Tuesday that Wheatland's Alternative Education Task Force failed to come up with enough signatures on a petition seeking to have Wheatland secede from the Farrell Area School District and become part of West Middlesex Area School District.

After a day and a half of a hearings set aside to confirm that the 244 people who signed the petition still wanted to proceed, WhEAT was able to produce 71.

Judge Fornelli said that WhEAT had the burden of proving the signatures were valid and directed that all signers show up to testify in court or be deposed at the Wheatland municipal building.

Under state law

State law requires that 51 percent of the municipality's taxable inhabitants sign a secession petition, and although Fornelli never issued a ruling on how many people that would be, he did say the group failed to produce the number of petitioners it felt was necessary.

WhEAT thought it needed 232 signatures, said Lorraine Jones of Canal Street, who helped circulate the petition.

Atty. James Nevant, representing Farrell Schools, said the district believed the magic number was 309.

At the close of the hearing Tuesday, Fornelli denied the petition and ordered the petitioners to pay court costs and costs of 20 depositions taken in the case.

The bill is undetermined, but Nevant said it would probably total less than $1,000.

"That was phase one," said Don Stinedurf of Grandview Drive, a member of WhEAT.

"It's not going to go away. It's going to come back stronger. It's just the beginning."

Some WhEAT members, gathered at the municipal building after the ruling, think there are grounds to appeal.

Stinedurf said the group knew it could lose the petition issue and has been working on a different approach. He declined to be specific but vowed the group won't quit.

"We're not backing down. We're not stopping. We're gong to keep trying until it's done," he said.

Researched testing statistics

Group members said they approached the secession issue with an open mind, doing research into pupil standardized testing statistics that showed West Middlesex schools had better scores.

They said they resented that opponents of their plan publicly labeled them as racist because they want to leave Farrell, where the pupil population is 80 percent black.

The group wasn't taking only white Wheatland children from Farrell, it was taking all Wheatland children. It's all about a better education, Jones said.

Others were critical of the court's demand that all petition signers travel to Mercer to testify. Very poor road conditions prevented some from making the trip, Stinedurf said. Others were discouraged by reports of a very low turnout at Monday's hearing and chose not to appear Tuesday, Jones added.

Several members said Wheatland contributes $418,000 a year in real estate taxes to the Farrell district, about 22 percent of the revenue, but with only 40 to 50 pupils, it has only 4 percent or 5 percent of the 1,100-pupil population.

gwin@vindy.com




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