Cleveland Heights – Members of the city’s Orthodox Jewish community are receiving support from City Council as they continue efforts to purchase the former Millikin School property from the Cleveland Heights-University Heights schools.
Representatives of Mosdos Ohr Hatorah, an Orthodox day school with two locations in Cleveland Heights, packed council chambers at City Hall during a regular council meeting Feb. 21, expressing frustration over the school board’s rejection of an offer Mosdos made on the vacant property, and for what they characterized as a lack of communication by the district.
Mosdos offered to buy the former elementary school property, 1700 Crest Road in Cleveland Heights, for $550,000 in December. That is the highest offer the district has received since the school board put the property – built in 1953 and closed in 2006 after 14 years as an early childhood center – up for sale via public auction in 2007.
Mosdos executive director Rabbi Baruch Chaim Manies has stated the school is looking for a larger building for its boys division, preschool through eighth grade, housed in the former Warrensville Center Synagogue, 1508 Warrensville Center Road.
Following a Feb. 7 school board meeting at which Mosdos representatives urged the district to accept their offer, district Superintendent Doug Heuer released a statement indicating because the Millikin property – a 54,960-square-foot building on 10.9 acres – was appraised at $2.4 million in 2005, “there is simply no reason for the district to sell this property at an unfairly low price.”
Steve Shergalis, the district’s director of business services, has acknowledged a call center company has expressed an interest in leasing the property.
In pleading their case Feb. 21 to council, Mosdos representatives said the city’s thriving Orthodox community could develop a “jewel” for Cleveland Heights at Millikin, including more than $1 million in improvements. Further, they accused the board of refusing to engage in open discussion.
Council holds no decision-making power over the sale of the school, but would have to approve a rezoning for business use.
A Mosdos contingent also attended a school board work session Feb. 21, but opportunity for public comment was not given, per the meeting’s set agenda.
“The most important thing in our entire lives is the Jewish education of our children,” said Steve Rokowsky, a Mosdos father of seven. “We feel like the message we’re getting (from the school board) is that our children’s education is not important to them.”
Councilman Jason Stein – a Mosdos parent and member of the Orthodox community – has been outspoken in his support of the school’s purchase of Millikin, which was echoed by other council members.
“I’m totally for you,” Councilwoman Bonita Caplan said, referring to having a call center at Millikin as a terrible idea. “You’re an integral part of the community. You’re a wonderful part of the community.”
As promised at the council meeting, Mayor Ed Kelley sent the school board a letter dated Feb. 22 requesting either the board hold a special meeting with Mosdos to discuss Millikin, meet with council on the issue, or both.
School board President Karen Jones responded in a Feb. 27 press release.
“Currently the real estate market is at a historic low, so for the board to place property up for public auction at this time would clearly not be in the best financial interests of the district and, therefore, barring a very compelling reason that would support the public good for the entire Cleveland Heights community, it would be inappropriate to place the property up for sale at this time,” the release states.
“Contrary to statement made by supporters of Mosdos Ohr Hatorah, officials at the BOE have been responsive to their inquiries. Those responses have been made directly to their legal counsel. The board has indicated that the property is currently not on the market for sale, but they are willing to discuss a lease. To date there has been no response from either the Mosdos officials or their legal counsel to this offer.”
Further, Jones contends Mosdos has not been entirely transparent regarding its plans for Millikin.
“Additionally, the board has been informed unofficially that Mosdos officials have been discussing financial support from members of the business community in the Solon area concerning the purchase of the Millikin property, with the purpose of subdividing it for residential development,” the release states. “If this is true, then Mosdos officials have been disingenuous in not making this information known to the community, the BOE and the Cleveland Heights City Council, and we believe a public affirmation or denial is in order.
“Given the fact that many homes in the immediate area are already for sale or abandoned or being rented, it would be difficult for us to consider a sale that included plans for the creation of additional residential units.”
Manies did not reply to a request for comment by the Sun Press deadline Feb. 28.