The Exeter school board will appeal a decision by the Berks County Board of Elections to reject a proposed ballot initiative that would give the school district more power over local zoning codes when seeking sites for new school construction.The board voted 7-1 at its Sept. 2 meeting giving attorneys the go-ahead to file an appeal in Berks County Court of the decision by county commissioners Mark C. Scott, Kevin S. Barnhardt and Christian Y. Leinbach sitting as the election board.

"There are no locations currently in Exeter that a school can be placed by right," Attorney Jon S. Malsnee told the board at an Aug. 28 meeting of the election board arguing for the referendum.

He added that the district is simply seeking the right to determine where in the township it can locate future schools.

A hearing on the issue was scheduled for 9 a.m. Monday, in Judge Scott Lash's chambers at the Berks County Courthouse.

Exeter residents have been increasingly frustrated by repeated attempts to build a new elementary school within the district, believing that the zoning board has hampered the school's efforts to find an appropriate building site.

However, others feel the school district should build on land it already owns, and preserve remaining open space at all costs, and still others believe there isn't a need for a new school at all.

At the Aug. 28 meeting of the election board, Exeter Township attorney Andre J. Bellwoar argued that the ballot initiative was an end-run around township zoning laws, and that the legal remedies had not been exhausted.

He also argued the election board had no authority to place the initiative on the ballot.

"Schools are allowed in 10 out of 13 zoning districts in the township by special exception. With regards as to whether you [the Board] have any function here, you have a gatekeeper function as to whether this is a valid question to go on the ballot," Bellwoar said.

The election board, chaired by Leinbach, voted unanimously at the meeting to reject the proposal, which school board officials and residents were seeking to place on the Nov. 4 ballot.

Nearly 500 residents had signed a petition indicating the school board should have the authority to place a school where the board deemed appropriate, bypassing the township. They had hoped to put the petition before the general public in the upcoming general election.

However, all three members of the election board disagreed.

"The core issue is what we can and cannot do here," said Leinbach. "Weighing in on the merits of the challenge is not the role of the election board."

Barnhardt said the referendum would likely be challenged even if the board were to place it on the ballot

"It seems to me to be very clear that we are being asked to put a question on the ballot that authorizes something that is not permitted. The intent of this petition is to evade the legal limitations, and it just doesn't pass the smell test for me," Scott added.

Contacted after the school board's appeal vote, Barnhardt said he was not surprised.

"As I indicated at the election board meeting, I believed an appeal would be the most likely result of the board's decision. I will await a ruling by the court that should ultimately determine the merit of the school board's argument," he said.

Leinbach said he believed the district is asking for the right to re-zone and said he too would await the court's decision. Scott had no comment on the school board's decision.

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