Have signs of fan support in Tamaqua grown too large for the Tamaqua Area School District?

On Monday, the district decided to crack down on a large, temporary display backing the Tamaqua Blue Raiders, signage engineered by a community resident who routinely volunteers on behalf of the town, school and its sports teams.

Justin Startzel, 24, is a well-known 2009 TAHS alumnus and community organizer who promotes esprit de corps. But yesterday, he was ordered by school district officials to remove signage he erected Saturday on Stadium Hill.

Startzel had placed similar signage at the same place last year, something he does after first checking with school cheerleaders and the Tamaqua Area Football Boosters Association (TAFB).

The sudden change in mood by the district has Startzel saddened and puzzled, especially after he received a phone call on Monday ordering him to dismantle the large RAIDERS display. It was a phone call that traveled through several channels.

The request, he said, originated at the school, with a call from Mike Hromyak, athletic director, to TAFB President Patty Skripko. Skripko then called Startzel to relay the message.

"According to Carol Makuta, the signs are too big," said Startzel. "She said nothing was done before of this magnitude. But that's not so. We had the 'We Are Big Blue' signs up last year and they were the same."

Makuta serves as district superintendent.

The district reportedly threatened to remove the sign by the end of the day Monday if Startzel didn't take it down.

"I'm afraid they'll have me arrested," Startzel told the TIMES NEWS.

Startzel has been battling a health issue recently and wasn't feeling well. He took time during the afternoon to see his family doctor before meeting with the TIMES NEWS.

As for the sign, Startzel said he followed the same procedure as last year and had encountered no problems in 2012.

"I'm not doing this to step on anyone's toes," he said. "We did follow protocol. The cheerleaders weren't going to decorate the hill. They're going to do the stadium and press box, and they're going to paint the store windows. They even commented on how nice this looks, and the football players want it here, too."

Throughout the day, word spread like wildfire via social media networks, and a petition garnered 80 signatures in just an hour or two.

Both Hromyak and Makuta could not be reached for comment. Callers who contacted the TASD administration building were reportedly told that "the issue will be resolved at the regular school board meeting on Tuesday."

Many said they will attend the meeting to voice displeasure about the district's response to the gesture of community pride.

Startzel spent several days creating the large RAIDERS sign, carving out seven letters that stand four feet wide and eight feet high.

He chose a size he felt would optimize visibility as one traverses Stadium Hill. He was assisted in the project by the Tamaqua Area Raider Eagle mascot Tyler Calkins, 17, and TAHS senior James Jackowski, 18.

The three then cut brush and cleared branches in the woods along Stadium Hill to make space for the sign.

"I was in tears over this," Startzel said. "I'm doing something good and I'm being attacked for it."

Others were upset to see something positive turn negative all for reasons unclear.

"We want these signs to be up for when the kids go back to school and for Meet the Raiders Night. These signs shouldn't be taken down," said resident Michele Mehallic, who disagrees with the school's position.

"At other schools, they wish they had someone like him," she said, referring to Startzel and his enthusiasm.

Mehallic's father, Bill Jones, transported the oversized letters to the site on the back of his pickup truck on Saturday to help the young men with the project.

According to Tamaqua Borough officials, the section of Stadium Hill where the sign is placed is TASD property.

Last year, Startzel also placed about 25 large painted Raider Pride wooden signs throughout the town on borough property, and tied ribbons to poles or parking meters, and painted store windows. Tamaqua Borough is very cooperative, Startzel said, as are businesses and property owners. And so was the school district until now, he says.

Kevin Steigerwalt, borough manager, is familiar with the fall sports signs done by Startzel.

"He asks permission before he does it," said Steigerwalt.

The borough asks that such signs be removed when no longer needed, something Startzel does.

Startzel also coordinated an October 2012 community pep rally prior to the Tamaqua-Marian football game in honor of undefeated Tamaqua. The event drew 700 fans to Depot Square Park. The Tamaqua Blue Raiders went on to finish with a perfect 10-0 league record and the Anthracite League Championship.

Startzel wants to continue that momentum into 2013. But he says he never expected school administration to become a roadblock.

The Tamaqua Area School Board will meet tonight at 7:30 p.m. in the Large Group Instruction Room inside Tamaqua Area Middle School.

The meeting is open to the public.