TONTOGANY - Surrounded by a sea of orange and black, several youngsters knelt in the grass, gripping beach-variety plastic shovels.
But these Otsego students weren't making castles of sand. They were helping to build their futures as dirt flew during the groundbreaking for a new elementary school.
It has been a controversial building project, and Otsego unity was the underlying message as speakers praised district residents for coming together for the benefit of the community and its students, despite some hard feelings over the loss of schools in three communities in the district.
Some residents, including community officials, have expressed disappointment over the eventual closing of the schools, which often serve as the heart of community activities.
The new pre-K to 5th-grade school, slated to open in 2012 near the high school and junior high buildings in Tontogany, will replace buildings in Haskins, Weston, and Grand Rapids.
"I still think people have some mixed feelings about the new expansion," said Wendy Hillyard of Haskins as she and her 11-month-old son Ryan waited for the groundbreaking ceremony to begin last Friday morning.
"It still would be nice for the kids to walk to school," but still, she said, "it will be nice to have all of them in one building."
Although some Otsego residents have yet to warmly embrace the new school, perhaps they will "once they see how nice it is and how convenient it will be," she said.
The impressive turnout at the groundbreaking didn't surprise her. People wanted to come and participate "so they can be part of Otsego's new tradition," she said.
Her children Brandan, who is in preschool, and Zack, who is kindergarten, will attend classes in the new school.
Students from outlying schools were bused to Tontogany to attend the celebration, and the youngsters arrived ready for action - they wore plastic yellow hard hats decorated with Otsego Knights stickers.
Many students, staff members, parents, and others had donned orange-and-black spirit wear to show their support for the new school.
Ashtyn Gregory, 5, and Gavin Miller, 6, kindergartners at Grand Rapids, were among those wearing the hard hats, and when Ashtyn's mother and father, Emily and Chad Gregory talked about the new school, the child looked puzzled and asked, "Where?"
Mrs. Gregory said, "Just over there," and Ashtyn remarked, "Really?"
Yes, really, and that is what had some in the crowd wiping away tears.
"It's been a long time coming. A long time," said Mr. Gregory.
Otsego High School seniors were in kindergarten when the project started, said Steve Kendall, who represented the New Facilities Committee during his remarks at the event.
Discussions about new facilities had been going on for much longer, though, Joe Long, former Otsego superintendent, noted. "There had been talk since the '60s," he said before the ceremony began.
Mr. Long was among those recognized during the event; he was superintendent during the first phase of the Otsego building project, when the new high school was constructed.
For years, voters defeated bond issues for a multiphase building project, but on a fourth try, a bond issue was approved in 2004 for construction of the high school using the Ohio School Facilities Commission expedited program. The $21 million high school in Tontogany opened in 2007.
For two years many meetings were held to discuss the fate of Otsego's three elementary schools, and in March, the board voted to proceed with construction of a single elementary in Tontogany which will result in the trio of old schools being closed. The Weston school already has been shuttered.
The remaining phase of the $40 million K-12 building project calls for renovation of the junior high school. During that work, junior high students will go to classes at the Grand Rapids building for six months to a year.
Mr. Garber noted during the groundbreaking celebration that the new school will be built without a tax increase or a bond issue.
The school board took out a bank loan rather than ask voters for new tax dollars, saying it would pay off the loan with the expected savings from operating one new school rather than three aging ones.
As the groundbreaking celebration neared its conclusion, representatives from various grade levels lined up along rows of black dirt.
Clutching the white plastic shovels, they waited patiently until Grand Rapids Elementary School Principal Harold Bower said "Dig in," and that they did.
As the crowd cheered, shovels scooped dirt, and the community beamed.
It was a good day to be a Knight.