Presidential politics defined 2016.
To pretend otherwise is pointless. Blue collar and white collar workers, the young and old, rich and poor joined in a battle of ideologies. Amherst couches became command centers as factions warred over candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
Each year, the News-Times looks back through our pages at the stories that chronicled our collective experience. This trip around the sun, the rise of Trump to the presidency is unquestionably the most profound development of 2016.
Amherst also saw its share of local triumphs and tragedies that set the stage for years to come.
Here is a recap of the biggest stories of the year.
Photo by Ali Shaker | VOA — Donald Trump speaks during the 2016 presidential race. TRUMP TURNS THE TABLES Nov. 10 edition: Few political analysts picked Donald Trump from the crowded Republican primary pack to get the party’s nomination, with most favoring Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, or Jeb Bush. But each of those candidates quickly fell by the wayside, and when the Republican National Convention came to Cleveland in July, Trump remained standing. Journeying to the convention at Quicken Loans Arena, reporter Evan Goodenow found a deeply divided cross-section of Americans: flag-burning demonstrators, Communist Party demonstrators, fist-fights, apocalyptic prophets, signs bearing swastikas, conservative student marchers, voting rights activists, and T-shirt vendors hawking anti-Clinton merchandise. The political divide was evident in a Sept. 7 viewing of the “Commander-in-Chief Forum” on NBC. Some veterans gathered at the Amherst VFW shouted “liar” as Clinton spoke and the majority cheered and clapped for Trump. Trump yard signs in Amherst vastly outnumbered those for Clinton, multiplying after an Oct. 7 stop by running mate Mike Pence at Your Deli on Park Avenue, where the Indiana governor picked up some locally-made paprikash. And as the fall wore on, Ohio slid from solidly blue to purple to deeply red. Trump’s campaign office in Lorain seemed to be doing much better business than the Clinton campaign office in Oberlin. On Election Day, it was clear the state would go to Trump but entirely unexpected that all other swing states — Florida, North Carolina Pennsylvania, Wisonsin, and Michigan — would follow suit. Also surprising was the split in traditionally-Democrat-supporting Lorain County, where unofficial results showed Trump taking a slight lead. When all ballots were certified in late November, Clinton held the lead by about 400 votes. Much of that was due to Amherst, which had supported Barack Obama in previous elections but flipped the script. Trump won an overwhelming number of Electoral College seats. While he won in all the right places, Clinton won the popular vote by 2.8 million, the largest lead of any candidate in United States history who ultimately was denied the White House.
Photo by Jason Hawk | Amherst News-Times — Principal Debbie Waller and superintendent Steven Sayers lead a tour of Powers Elementary, showing its aging infrastructure. LANDSLIDE: AMHERST WILL GET A NEW SCHOOL Nov. 10 edition: When surveys showed voters didn’t want to foot the cost of a PK-5 school, Amherst educators switched gears. After refinancing its debt and scaling down to a PK-3 building, the Amherst school board found overwhelming support for construction. Voters said yes (65 to 35 percent) to demolishing Harris and Powers elementary schools and combining grades under one roof on South Lake Street. The project is estimated to cost $32 million with the state paying $14.2 million of the bill. To pay the local share, Amherst voters agreed to a 12-year extension of the bond issue originally used to construct Amherst Junior High. Powers principal Debbie Waller and Harris principal Beth Schwartz were relieved. Prior to the election, they gave the News-Times tours of their buildings, revealing leaking ceilings, structural problems, too-small classrooms, outdated bathrooms, reliance on modular classrooms, a lack of storage space, heating issues, and more. The process will mean some cramped quarters as grades shuffle around during demolition and construction. Both Fall 2017 and Fall 2018 will see Powers hosting prekindergarten through second grade, Nord will third through fifth grades, and Amherst Junior High with grades six to eight. Modular units will be used at Nord. When the new school opens, it will hold prekindergarten through third grade, Nord will host grades four and five, and the junior high will keep grades sixth through eight. Aug. 4: Before Amherst celebrated a new school, Firelands mourned three consecutive defeats at the polls. The rural district found strong anti-tax sentiment in strike-outs at the polls last fall, this past spring, and again in a special August election — each time, the nays growing louder. In the final swing, only 38 percent supported construction of a 6-12 facility to replace the aging Firelands High and South Amherst Middle schools. The results surprised Firelands board of education president Ben Gibson, who thought the cause had gained some traction. “We feel the board listened to some of the statements made after the previous elections wanting to develop something that was more fair for some of the older people in the district and our large property owners,” he said. If successful, the levy would have generated $29.5 million and the state would have paid $6.2 million to build the school. The window has now closed for Firelands to use that state cash.
Courtesy photo — Ohio State Highway Patrol trooper Kenneth Velez SHOCKED BY TRAGEDIES • Sept. 29 edition: Trooper Kenneth Velez, 48, was hit and killed by a passing car while conducting a traffic stop on Rt. 2 in Lakewood. A Lorain resident, his children all attended the Amherst Schools. Christian Velez is a sophomore who just a day after his father’s death took the field with a blue-striped flag, wept with teammates, and led the Comets football team to its first victory in 15 games. Devin Velez stood at attention in dress uniform at his father’s funeral, on a short leave from the U.S. Air Force duty in South Korea. Their sister, Andria Velez, told all that her father was a hero. “Thank you for all your service,” she told the hundreds of law enforcement officers who attended the ceremony. “I love him so much.” “That man went down a hero,” said trooper Velez’s cousin, Ray Torres Jr. “He went down that way because he was a hero. Kenny, you’re a hero yesterday, today, and forever.” Col. Paul Pride, superintendent of the Ohio State Highway Patrol, said Velez represented his brethren well. “He had an infectious personality. With the love and support that Kenneth Velez showed in his life, what we can accomplish is endless.” Joshua Gaspar, 37, of Columbia Station, is charged with aggravated vehicular homicide. Court records said he was under the influence of drugs at the time of the crash. In early December, Gaspar was declared indigent and the Cuyahoga Court of Common Pleas assigned him a new attorney. A trial has been set for March 1. • April 7 edition: Kimberly Roach, an Amherst 12-year-old who attended Lake Ridge Academy, was killed while vacationing in South Carolina. An aspiring equestrian, she was fatally kicked in the head by a horse, according to Lellie Ward, owner of Paradise Farm just outside Aiken, a town of about 30,000 in the western part of the state. She was found in a pasture where her horse was kept. Roach had gotten the animal just two weeks prior. • Jan. 28 edition: Everything changed when Drew Hayden’s sled reached the bottom of the hill. The nine-year-old, a third-grader at attended Harris Elementary School in Amherst, had been playing on a small rise at Meadow Lakes Boulevard in North Ridgeville. He died when his sled was hit by a passing car. “As an educator and a mother, my heart hurts for our entire Amherst community and especially his parents,” Harris principal Beth Schwartz posted online. “As you talk to your children about this difficult situation, please hold them tight and know that we are here to help.” Classmates at the school grieved by crafting paper flowers in art class and green and gold footballs in Hayden’s memory. His youth football teammates wore their green and gold jerseys. A balloon launch was held in September at a Comets football game, where a bench dedicated to Hayden overlooks the field.
Photo by Jason Hawk | Amherst News-Times — Kimberly Green is led away in handcuffs. FOUND GUILTY • Sept. 8 edition: Kimberly Green, the disgraced former South Amherst clerk, was sentenced to six months behind bars at the Lorain County Jail. “You violated the public trust,” Lorain County Court of Common Pleas judge James Miraldi told her, ordering that she will work her entire life to pay back $677,000 stolen from village taxpayers. Once released, Green will be on probation for five years and required to continue getting psychiatric treatment and attend Gamblers Anonymous meetings. She’ll have to keep steady work to pay $560 per month in restitution. That’s about half her wages from a job at General Plug in Grafton. Her husband, former South Amherst councilman John Green, also volunteered to have $400 per month deducted from his wages. Kimberly Green had to surrender $10,000 from her pension and the couple pledged to pay $1,000 or more per year from income tax refunds and $25,000 from the sale of their home. Miraldi said he considered levying huge fines but they “would get in the way” of her ability to pay back South Amherst. Green stole the cash over the course of a year and a half, writing checks to herself from the public coffers and cashing them across the street at a Sunoco station where she also worked. The money was used to support Green’s Ohio Lottery addiction. Some days, Green wrote $30,000 in checks to herself, said councilwoman Donna Hauck. Investigators caught on when the village couldn’t pay its bills. South Amherst mayor Dave Leshinski was livid at the sentencing. “You are not welcome in this town. People wanted to desecrate your parents’ graves,” he told Green, accusing her of a history of misusing booster club, retail store, and personal finances and calling her a swindler and robber who knew what she was doing was “against the commandments of God.” • Oct. 20 edition: David Hansing had sex with an intoxicated employee during a late night shift at his downtown Amherst restaurant, Cork’s and Stubby’s, a jury decided. It convicted him of sexual battery, a third-degree felony, but did not find Hansing guilty on rape or kidnapping counts. Defense attorney Michael Kinlin said his client maintained the encounter was consensual. Lorain County Court of Common Pleas judge Mark Betleski sentenced Hansing, 43, of Avon, to 12 months in jail and five years of post-release control. Cork’s and Stubby’s closed suddenly about six weeks before the trial began. Signs appeared on the doors to announce the closure, surprisingly some workers who showed up for their shifts and customers who had scheduled special events there. The space has since reopened under new ownership as Cole’s Public House. • Jan. 14 edition: Former Harris Elementary night custodian Raymond “Jack” Tiller avoided jail time for molesting an 11-year-old girl on school grounds. At the urging of the victim’s family, Lorain County Court of Common Pleas judge Michele Arredondo sentenced Tiller, 57, to three years probation. The tiny girl told the judge she never thought Tiller would cause her harm. She had known him before the April 2014 incident in which he touched her “like I was his wife,” the girl said. She spoke of losing her innocence, of having trouble trusting grown-ups, and of being unable to express love for others because of what Tiller did to her. “He scared her. He placed her in the dark. And he wanted more of her,” the child’s mother said, tears rolling down her face. Tiller pleaded guilty to counts of felony kidnapping and gross sexual imposition just two days before a trial was set to begin. Arredondo seemed reluctant to hand down the reduced sentence but took the family’s wishes to heart. Yet she said that if Tiller violates his parole in any way, she will make sure he spends the maximum sentence behind bars.
Photo by Jason Hawk | Amherst News-Times — Old hallways take on a crypt-like feel inside the former Central School. CENTRAL’S BID FOR NEW LIFE Aug. 25 edition: When its doors closed in the early 1980s, the ol’ gal had lived a long and prosperous life. Now, at last, Central School will be given a second chance. In its reincarnated form, its hallways will no longer be filled with textbooks and first kisses but with assisted living residents. Sprenger Health Care has pledged to renovate the Church Street building with historical tax credits, creating 40 living units. The building, which has sat empty for three decades, needs a complete interior overhaul although key features — such as the iconic stage, elevated walkway, and master staircase — will remain. Central is on the National Register of Historic Places, which protects it from many changes. For instance, project architect Mike Cloud has said the exterior must stay largely intact and every effort must be made to preserve the flow of the building inside. Chief operating officer Michael Sprenger took us on a tour of the long-dark school in August. We wound through its cave-like first floor, saw the water-warped old floorboards of the gymnasium, stepped over broken glass from vandals, and walked gingerly through the upstairs rooms. In early December, Cloud’s plans for gutting and restoring the building were granted conditional approval by the Amherst planning commission. “You’re going to make a lot of people happy in this town if this goes through,” said commission member Charlie Marty. Preparation has been underway inside the former school for months. Aggressive demolition of the interior is expected to begin in the first quarter of the new year.
Photo by Evan Goodenow | Amherst News-Times — Steven Huynh, Steele High School Class of 2016, tells transgender students, “We will love you no matter what. No matter what bathroom you go into.” SOCIAL ISSUES WITH LOCAL IMPACT • May 19 edition: “I’m not happy,” we overhead one woman ominously tell a crisis counselor as we visited the Nord Center in Lorain. Our mission there was to talk about why suicides have skyrocketed to a record high in the past decade. Social workers took about 16,000 calls last year to the mental health center’s 24-hour hotline, talking to those who feel they may hurt themselves or others. Last year saw 39 people tragically take their own lives here in Lorain County, where the average has been 38 in each of the last five years, according to the coroner’s office. The loss of well-paying jobs, the national opioid epidemic, and easy access to guns have all contributed to a shocking rise in suicides, coroner Stephen Evans said. Kathleen Kern, Lorain County Board of Mental Health assistant director, has worked with about 100 suicidal people, primarily young people, since becoming a psychologist in 1999. She said many believe they are a burden on others. Their feelings of hopelessness and isolation can turn into reckless behavior. Suicides are up 46 percent across America since 1999 and Ohio mirrors the ghastly trend. A study by the Ohio Suicide Prevention Foundation found the state’s rate jumped by 27 percent between 2000 and 2010. Nearly 20,000 Ohioans have taken their own lives since 2000 — that’s almost triple the number of homicides. • June 23 edition: Transgender students’ civil rights were the subject of an emotional public debate before the Amherst board of education. The U.S. Department of Education and Department of Justice issued a directive in late May saying students with fluid gender identities should be able to use the bathrooms and locker rooms of their choice — or offer the option to certain students to use private facilities. The Amherst Schools, on the advice of their lawyers, opted not to put any policy in writing. “We have and we will continue to work with our students discreetly and respectfully like we always have,” board president Rex Engle said. In a couple of public meetings, residents vented frustrations over the issue, some supporting transgender people and others saying the directive was “reckless” and “dangerous.” They worried the directive would be abused by students, though there have been no such cases over the years while transgender students were allowed to use Amherst facilities of their choice. Several states, including Ohio, have sued President Barack Obama’s administration over the directive. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine called it “heavy-handed federal bureaucratic action guaranteeing prolonged controversy and litigation.” The U.S. Supreme Court announced in October that it would take up the transgender bathroom issue based on a Virginia case involving a 17-year-old student who was born female but identifies as male. He was denied the right to use the boys’ restroom at his high school. In the meantime, an 11-year-old transgender student from Ohio won a case earlier this month to be allowed to continue using the girls’ bathroom in the Highland Local School District near Akron. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit denied the school district’s appeal.