There was much to celebrate and much to mourn in 2015.
Amherst weathered an exciting election year, wrestled with crime, celebrated education, was posed with difficult decisions, and was swept up in national events.
Each year, the News-Times staff looks back through our pages, getting a bearing on where we’re heading by remembering where we’ve been. This time, our short list of potential top 10 stories wasn’t very short at all.
Just missing the cut were articles detailing the departure of TeleTech on Rt. 58, an important $200,000 federal grant to help outfit Amherst firefighters, and an historic vote on marijuana legalization.
We also refrained from putting too much emphasis on big headlines resulting from fires and violence. Exciting as those can be, our top 10 stories mostly reflect events that will have long-term effects on Amherst.
1) Nov. 5: It’s Costilow in a landslide
In a mostly amicable race, Republican Mark Costilow defeated Democrat David Kukucka Nov. 3 with a resounding 22.6 percent mandate in the Amherst mayoral election.
The split surprised both candidates, who had anticipated a much tighter race.
“People know me. I think they know my work ethic. They know I’m a people person,” the mayor-elect said on Election Night.
Costilow has lived in Amherst 26 years, owning and operating the Amherst Cinema for 16 of those years. He has served on city council, planning commission, zoning board of appeals, and as safety-service director.
He ran on a platform of business development, updating city infrastructure and technology, and keeping a tight rein on money.
“Amherst’s budget has been extremely guarded in the past 12 years and rightfully so,” he wrote in a News-Times candidate survey prior to the election. “It is my conviction that we are elected to be prudent stewards of the taxpayers’ dollars. Too often we read or hear of surrounding cities whose budgets have a deficit of millions of dollars. That is not the case in Amherst!”
In late November, mayor-elect Costilow tapped John Jeffreys to serve as his safety-service director in charge of police, fire, and utilities.
Jeffreys was appointed in 2004 to serve on the Amherst planning commission and is also an appointee to the zoning board of appeals. Since 2013, he has served as chair of the parks commission.
2) Oct. 1: Mock shooting at Steele
There was quiet in the halls of Amherst Steele High School the morning of Sept. 28 — until gunfire rang out. Screams followed.
Justin Forthofer, 29, of Avon, stalked the hallways, firing off blanks in a staged drill designed to test the reactions of police, firefighters, EMTs, sheriff’s deputies, SWAT, dispatchers, LifeFlight, hospitals, bomb experts, and hundreds of teachers.
Treating the mock situation with absolute gravity, police cased the building in search of the shooter. They located him on the second floor of the school and took him down.
“It really got you thinking,” said art teacher Tony Trunzo. “You talk to each other, you know, about what it would be like, what you would do… I think I learned to think more about where the exits are.”
Our reporters watched the action unfold from both inside and outside the building, learning much about just how prepared safety and rescue forces are to handle mass violence.
Even the most highly-trained police are unnerved, we saw, when faced with live gunfire — even when they know it’s simulated. And agencies don’t always operate like clockwork when responding to a high-pressure situation, encountering doubt and confusion along the way.
Certain actors were “hit” by bullets and EMTs had to make decisions about who to treat first and where to treat them.
Neither is evacuation an easy call. Teachers need to be able to make difficult decisions about whether to barricade classrooms, use doorway exits, or bail from windows to best keep students from harm.
With mass shootings this year in the United States far exceeding 300, more could be done to iron out those kinks while hoping such training is never put to the test.
3) May 14: Green jailed on $469K in suspected thefts
Investigators suspect South Amherst clerk Kimberly Green was skimming village funds for years before anyone noticed.
Green, 53, was indicted this past spring by a Lorain County grand jury on counts of theft, tampering with records, and theft in office connected to withholding retirement benefits — all third-degree felonies.
Police Lt. Michael Frazier said he and Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation workers pored over public financial records going back to 2013 and found evidence Green took close to $500,000.
Problems came to light when South Amherst officials learned the village’s bills weren’t being paid.
Frazier said he believes Green was writing checks to herself from the village coffers and that most of the money was used on lottery tickets.
Green pleaded not guilty to the indictment counts.
Not even a state audit caught warning signs of possible theft. That oversight led to the very public firing of two employees by Ohio Auditor of State Dave Yost.
In an Amherst press conference, he said 23-year state office worker William Barile and his supervisor, Donna Busser, were terminated due to negligence. They were supposed to audit checks written by Green but did not, Yost said.
“I apologize to the people of this village,” he said. “There is no excuse for this failure. We have acted quickly to address the failure and to take the necessary corrective actions within the office.”
Since his wife left office, South Amherst councilman John Green has also stepped down.
4) Dec. 3: All residents moved from Golden Acres
After decades of closure rumors, the end finally came at Thanksgiving for Golden Acres Nursing Home.
Residents were all moved from the cash-strapped facility following a September announcement by Lorain County commissioners that the home was in its twilight.
“There’s always a concern when a building’s shut down as to how it’s going to be used,” said Amherst Township trustee Neal Lynch. “The one thing we don’t want to see is a building that’s left and then deteriorates… We’ll have the expectation that the county keeps it up.”
Golden Acres had its start in 1931 at the Pleasant View tuberculosis sanatorium. After being revamped in the last 40 years as a nursing home, by the mid-2000s the aging building drew the ire of commissioners due to high operating costs.
The number of patients dwindled in recent years from about 90 to 40 this fall.
5) Sept. 24: Let’s build a new elementary school
Educators say some Amherst schools are getting too costly to repair and anticipate the Ohio Schools Construction Commission to come forward with cash for a new one — so they’re pitching a new building on South Lake Street.
Voter support was not apparent for a pre-kindergarten-through-fifth-grade school, which could have had a price tag in the $45 million range, superintendent Steven Sayers said.
So in October, the board of education decided to scale back. In a unanimous vote, it hired Clark & Post Architects to design an elementary for pre-kindergarten through the third grade.
The plan also calls for renovations to Steele High School and some grade-shuffling. Amherst Junior High would be made a sixth-through-eighth building; Nord Middle would be used for fourth and fifth; and Powers and Harris elementaries would be retired.
“Those buildings are beyond financial repair,” said board member Ron Yacobozzi. “We understand there’s a lot of history there, but we can’t keep something that’s not going to be functional.”
Sayers is estimating a $30 million project cost, half of which could be covered by the state. He said if voters are willing to keep a soon-to-retire bond issue (originally passed in 2000) on the books, the new school could be built with no tax increase. Combining grades under one roof — a more energy-efficient roof — could also generate annual savings of up to $500,000.
“We have an obligation to look at this thing long-term. We’re not going to get a second chance,” Yacobozzi said. “We have to look at this very carefully right now and grab everything we can. It’s a one-time shot.”
The OSCC is expected to make a financing offer to Amherst in January.
6) Oct. 8: U.S. educators say Amherst Junior High is among the best
An A+ went to Amherst Junior High School this fall when the U.S. Department of Education named it one of the nation’s best schools.
The coveted Blue Ribbon Award was granted to just 335 schools this year, which may sound like a lot of winners. But considering there are roughly 98,800 public and 30,860 private institutions in the country, making the grade is no small feat.
Principal Ryan Coleman, teacher Katie Wohlever, and superintendent Steven Sayers traveled in November to Washington, D.C., to accept the award and attend a conference.
“It was a jam-packed three days,” Wohlever told the News-Times. “I didn’t wipe the smile off my face for days. There were positive, enthusiastic people all around.” She heard Teacher of the Year Shanna Peeples of Amarillo, Texas, speak; listened to U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education John King Jr.; and networked with teachers from all 50 states.
Coleman said winning the honor in no way means AJHS is a perfect school.
“They really focused on how the Blue Ribbon is not a destination to be reached,” he said. “It’s an honor but it’s also a starting point and a challenge to keep improving, keep innovating.”
Mayor David Taylor named Dec. 14 “Amherst Junior High Day” with an official proclamation given to Coleman at a meeting of the board of education. “I’ve always said the schools are the backbone of our community,” he said.
7) June 25: Drugs, regional ring behind Target thefts
Big retailers know thieves have a way of making $20 worth of electronics or jewelry disappear here and there.
But the situation grew to such a nuisance this spring and summer at Target on North Lake Street that Amherst police got angry. Through mid-June, they had investigated 45 theft cases at the big box store compared to 22 in all of 2014.
And they were frank about the root of the problem: heroin.
“The arrests we’ve made, talking to the suspects, a lot of them are admitted heroin addicts,” said Lt. Dan Makruski. “When officers search their person or their cars, they’re finding heroin-related paraphernalia.”
Syringes, tie-offs, spoons, and scales painted a clear picture of the addiction driving thieves, who started raiding the store for everything that could be slipped out easily — razors, clothing, phone cases, pillowcases, you name it.
Police said they were also on the trail of an organized ring with several regional Target stores in the cross-hairs, including Cleveland, Avon, Elyria, and Amherst. As of earlier this month, detectives said they were still working the case and making ground.
Lt. Mark Cawthon said his goal was never to make Target look bad, but he does want to deter criminals.
“When we have this issue it’s bringing people into our city who are criminals and we don’t want that… It also ties up our manpower in arresting people, booking them, transporting them to the county jail,” he said.
8) July 30: Car crashes into Majkut house, kills mother of two
We expect to be safe in our own homes. Debra Majkut did not have that luxury.
The 34-year-old mother was sitting on her living room couch the morning of July 28 in Amherst Township with her children and nephew close by when the unthinkable happened: A thunderous crash, and she was suddenly under a car.
Investigators say Adrianna Young, 23, of Oberlin, somehow veered off the road, across a field, and through the wall of the family home on Rt. 58. Toxicology reports from the Ohio State Highway Patrol show she had enough marijuana in her system to qualify as being high at the time.
Debra was pinned underneath Young’s Toyota Camry with infant son Jaxon. Rescuers managed to pull the baby to relative safety — he was flown to Cleveland with severe burns to his face — but Debra could not be saved.
Now Young has pleaded not guilty to a December indictment on felony counts stemming from the death, including aggravated vehicular homicide.
While there can be no happy ending to arise from the tragic crash, there is hope and evidence that goodness still exists in the hearts of neighbors and complete strangers alike. Thousands of dollars flooded into an online relief fund for the surviving Majkuts; more was collected in donation jars at area businesses, in pledge drives by school children; and Santa Claus even visited the Majkut home bearing the gifts of many to save Christmas for the grieving family.
“I didn’t realize the enormity of all this until I saw it all come together,” said a mystery Santa, watching as hundreds gathered this month to deliver presents in a parade of fire engines, police cars, tow trucks, EMT trucks, and civilian vehicles. “It’s just a great, great thing. That’s what this season’s all about… It’s a wonderful experience. So touching.”
9) Dec. 10: Knoll tapped to serve as Amherst fire chief
Firefighters are the heart and soul of small cities, always ready to throw themselves into danger to protect neighbors. Greg Knoll has been chosen to lead Amherst’s volunteers as chief Wayne Northeim retires.
He’s no stranger to danger. Knoll estimates he’s responded to 5,000 calls in his 27-year career as an Amherst firefighter. He is also a licensed fire inspector and fire prevention expert, serving as assistant chief since 2011.
“I’ve always had the philosophy that people call the fire department when they don’t know who else to call. They’re at their greatest need. It’s nice to be a member of the community who can be there to help,” he said.
Goals for 2016 and beyond include replacing self-contained breathing apparatus purchased with a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, possibly replacing a 20-year-old rescue truck, and talking more to the public about CPR and other emergency preparedness measures.
Knoll will be sworn in Jan. 5 in a ceremony at the Church Street firehouse.
10) July 2: Marriage equality is the law of the land
Rainbow flags flew high across the entire nation June 26 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that gender is no bar to marriage.
In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled it was unconstitutional to withhold marriage equality rights from same-sex couples under the Fourteenth Amendment.
“From this day forward, it will simply be ‘marriage,”’ said lead plaintiff Jim Obergefell, an Ohio resident who filed a 2013 lawsuit after the state would not recognize his marriage to John Arthur. The couple had been legally wed in Maryland.
While made far from the borders of Amherst, it is the single largest civil rights ruling since the 1960s and affects millions of people.
Following the court’s decision, we reached out to 54 churches in our Amherst, Oberlin, and Wellington coverage areas to find which would and would not wed same-sex couples.
Seven said their pastors would officiate over gay weddings, 30 said they would not, and 15 declined to comment or did not return multiple calls seeking comment. Two churches did not have a clear answer.
In Amherst, only one church — Heritage Presbyterian — said it would perform such weddings.
However, the Rev. Gradye Parsons, stated clerk for the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, issued a statement saying his denomination adopted a policy that “lifts up the sanctity of marriage and the commitment of loving couples within the church” while allowing elders to exercise discretion in officiating weddings.
When we opened our newspapers’ Facebook pages to opinions on the court’s decision, the response leaned in favor of marriage equality but still showed a split.
“So happy! As the sister of a gay man, I can say without a doubt that all he and his partner ever wanted was equality! Love is love!” posted Kristin Murphy.
Shawn Lind had an opposing view: “I feel sorry! I wish I could encourage people to read the Bible, the manual to life. It’s so sad how easily others are distracts and corrupted by the ways of this world. This is not what God intended.”