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State Ed Department defends school’s right to digital sign in East Aurora

In the flap over the East Aurora School District’s new digital sign that village leaders want removed, the district got the affirmation that it sought from the state Education Department this week.

In a letter received by the district and village, the state officially said the district can manage its own “normal” construction activity for things like replacing an old sign with a new one, even if it is in a historic district.

The letter led the Village of East Aurora to finally file a court complaint this week.

“We kind of expected that was going to happen,” said Mayor Allan A. Kasprzak. Village Attorney Paul D. Weiss was expected to file a request Tuesday for a special review, estimated to cost $60,000.

The village and the district have been arguing about the $55,000 sign on the Middle School’s Main Street lawn since the end of August. That’s when workers began installing it and the village asked the district to stop.

Internally lit, moving electric signs are banned in the historic Main Street district. The sign looks out on the century-old Roycroft Campus, a National Historic Landmark.

The letter received this week said the local schools and the state Education Department “specifically followed an approved process” with the state Historic Preservation Office “to determine that the work did not require (Preservation Office) review,” wrote Carl T. Thurnau, director of facilities for the Education Department.

While village trustees wanted the state to intervene and prevent the court proceeding, Thurnau declined. “We are hopeful that you will be able to resolve this matter with the school district amicably,” he said at the end of his letter.

A majority of the Village Board and Historical Preservation Commission were united in their dismay over the sign, with its moving digital letters spelling out school and Rotary Club announcements.

The two village panels wanted the schools to acknowledge the sign’s place in the old residential Main Street, redesign it and achieve compromise, as Main Street businesses do.

“It’s the geographical and cultural heart of our village,” said Mark W. Warren, a former chairman of the Preservation Commission, who called the sign a “desecration.”

A lawyer by profession, Warren was disappointed by the need for Tuesday’s legal action. “I would expect two local institutions should be able to have a reasonable conversation,” Warren had said in an earlier interview.

The school district compromised with an offer to put up public notices of all kinds. Yet it was not up for a more drastic, complete redesign that the village sought.

“Our position is that the school is held to a different standard than a business on Main Street,” said School Superintendent Brian D. Russ.

The Education Department’s letter was vindicating. “We’re pleased with the result,” Russ said. “It’s what we expected.”

It also was welcomed by Deborah Carr-Hoagland, wife of high school Principal Jay Hoagland, who was the lone member of the Village Board to vote against filing suit last week if the Education Department did not intervene.

“I just think the decision we received from the state Education Department regarding the sign substantiates what I’ve said all along, that the school district followed all their proper policies and procedures, that they are not subject to the procedures of the village,” she said. “I would like to see this lawsuit terminated. It’s absolutely frivolous and a waste of taxpayer money.”

Now, legal arguments must be scheduled.

“This isn’t going to be solved in six months,” said Trustee Patrick J. Shea, who voted in favor of a court resolution.