CUYAHOGA COUNTY, Ohio — Several families in Pepper Pike recently learned their homes were not in the school district their children have attended for years.
Michael Kirschner received a message from the superintendent of Orange City Schools in early April, telling him a zoning issue had come up with his property on North Pointe Drive and 21 other houses in his Pepper Pike neighborhood.
"As soon as I heard that message, my heart sank and I didn’t know what to think," Kirschner said.
The families then got a letter explaining they would have to withdraw their children from Orange and enroll them in Beachwood schools, or pay tuition for being students from outside the district.
Dr. Lynn Campbell, superintendent of schools in Orange for the last two years, said that he discovered the issue while trying to verify another family's address. He figured out 22 houses in the Kirschners' neighborhood were technically part of the Beachwood district, though seven children from those houses currently attend Orange schools.
"I just feel really badly for these families," Campbell said.
Kirschner and his wife Fani bought their house three years ago, "primarily because it was in the Orange school district," Kirschner said. "We’d done our research and talked to people and felt that it was going to be the best fit for our family."
Their children, Noam and Leon, just finished kindergarten and second grade, respectively, at Moreland Hills Elementary. Both started attending school in Orange three years ago, Noam as a peer student at the district's all-inclusive preschool and Leon as a kindergartener.
Kirschner wanted to confirm for himself that his house was geographically in the Beachwood district. He made phone calls and emails and has been doing so for the last six weeks, verifying this information and then trying to figure out what options his family has.
"I think it’s unfair, because our kids have already developed relationships [at Orange]," Kirschner said. "We love the faculty, we’ve already [fallen] in love with the teachers and the students and the families, and we feel like we’re a part of the Orange community at this point after a few years."
He said it would be "very difficult and really unfair" to the children involved. In addition to his own children, there are five other children from other families in the neighborhood who are in the same predicament.
"To ask a child to have to switch districts completely at this point seems very unfair," Kirschner said.
Kirschner was told his children would be able to stay in the district for the remainder of the school year on a tuition basis, but those fees were subsequently waived because they showed proof that the house had been listed as being within the Orange school district when they moved in.
For next year, though, these families have a few other options. First, they can withdraw their children from Orange and enroll in Beachwood. Second, they could stay in Orange schools but would have to pay more than $23,000 per student per year in tuition, a number set by the state.
"For us, that’s prohibitively expensive. We wouldn’t be able to afford that," Kirschner said. "Everybody, including myself, I’m worried about my job outlook based on the COVID-19 pandemic and how it’s affected my company, so that’s a concern as well. Twenty-three thousand dollar tuition wouldn’t be something we could consider."
Finally, they can petition the state for a territory transfer to move the land on which their houses sit from Beachwood to Orange. The Kirschners and their neighbors have been writing a letter, collecting signatures for a petition and hoping that this will go through.
However, Kirschner said he found out that the deadline for a territory transfer was April 1, before the families even learned about this issue. And because this all happened while offices have been shut down due to COVID-19, it's been tough to get answers.
"It feels like we’ve been asked to run a race with our feet tied," Kirschner said.
The family is now considering moving to a new home within the Orange district in order to keep their kids in the school they love. Kirschner said the kids "had tears in their eyes" when their parents told them what was going on, but "they said they’d be willing to move and sacrifice to a smaller bedroom if need be, or whatever it takes for them to stay in school."
Kirschner said he knows this was a mistake and not done intentionally, but the family hopes there is some sort of solution the state or the school districts can come up with for the seven children affected.
Dr. Campbell said since the district doesn't do open enrollment, there's not an easy fix.
"It’s really an unfortunate predicament that we find ourselves in," Campbell said.
He encouraged the families to reach out to the state board directly about the territory transfer since the deadline has passed and said his legal counsel has told him the board will progress as it can, regardless of the deadline.
Campbell said he isn't sure whether there is a short-term solution.
"The statutes are very strict. Even waiving the tuition was something we really needed to be careful about" as a public entity spending tax dollars, Campbell said.
Because the families lived there without paying any tuition "when technically they should have been, we would have been charged with having to collect that," he added.
That would have added "insult to injury," according to Campbell, which is why the fees were waived for this school year.
Asked whether his district has the legal authority to grandfather the seven children in to Orange schools, Campbell said there is "no clear authority" but that the district is researching that in order to reach a positive outcome for the children.