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Published: Wednesday, 3/10/2010

Otsego board hopes session will solve building debate

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

TONTOGANY - When the dust had settled, it seemed Otsego schools finally had a plan for the district's elementary schools.

The board voted unanimously last summer to replace its three aging elementaries in Grand Rapids, Haskins, and Weston with one new building in Tontogany. It would do so without seeking new tax dollars but instead by relying on savings from closing the old schools to pay the district's $4 million share of the $26 million project.

On Feb. 25, the dust was stirred up again when new board President Mark Tolles made a motion to stop the building project. Taken by surprise, the board ultimately tabled the motion and scheduled a special meeting for 6 p.m. today at the junior high gymnasium to discuss the issue further.

Mr. Tolles, who took office Jan. 1, said he believes the majority of voters want to keep schools in the three villages.

"They put the central campus on the ballot twice and it went down twice. Then they said, 'OK, we'll go with the new high school, move the junior high to the old high school, and renovate or replace the elementaries,' and that one won," Mr. Tolles said. "Everyone's trying to say that wasn't what was said. Well, it's what got heard by everybody."

Superintendent Jim Garber said he plans to have an attorney at tonight's meeting who can outline the financial implications of stopping the project now that it's under way.

While construction has not begun, the district has taken out a $4 million loan, hired an architectural firm and construction manager, and begun the design phase. The board likely would face penalties for breaching those contracts, he said.

"If this project gets stopped, our attorney said it would be financial suicide," Mr. Garber said.

Mr. Tolles said he wants to know the financial ramifications of closing the village schools. Will enrollment drop? Will property values decline?

He said he would at least like to see the board put the building project on hold until voters can have their say in November.

"I've always been cognizant that there's something in the way of cost if you're going to have more than one school, but I also think it's important to put to the voters: Do you want this? Do you want to keep schools in your small communities and, if you do, are you willing to pay for it?" he said. "At this point, they haven't been given that option."

In 2004, Otsego voters approved a bond issue to build a new high school using the Ohio School Facilities Commission's expedited program. The district paid up front the local share of a $40 million building project and was to get a $14 million credit when it went ahead with the second phase of the project - an overhaul of the three primary schools.

To build or renovate the three schools now would cost Otsego slightly more than $12 million compared to about $4 million to build one new school for all elementary students. Operating three schools, rather than one, also would cost the district more on an annual basis, Mr. Garber said.

Based on those figures, the school board agreed to build a central elementary. It also closed Weston Elementary at the end of last school year as a cost-cutting measure.

"It's one of those situations where the board in power in 2009 decided this was best for the district," Mr. Garber said. "You can look at the new board members coming on and, even if their hearts feel the district should have three schools, it's really too late.

"Blame the superintendent and the old board for getting us into this position, but the bottom line is it's too late to go back. To try to undo it would damage the district beyond imagination."

Contact Jennifer Feehan at:

jfeehan@theblade.com

or 419-724-6129.



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