TONTOGANY - Despite what some residents called an attempt to circumvent the voters, the Otsego school board agreed last night to finance a new elementary school without going to the ballot box.
The 5-0 vote came at the end of a 90-minute meeting in the high school library during which residents voiced both support and distrust of a lease-purchase option that will enable Otsego to borrow $3.9 million, most likely through the Ohio Association of School Business Officials.
Superintendent Jim Garber said he is convinced that the district will be able to repay the loan through savings realized by closing three aging schools - Grand Rapids, Haskins, and Weston - and operating one, more efficient, new building at the Tontogany campus.
Although most school construction projects are paid for with voter-approved bond issues, the board was reluctant to take the question to voters because its last three requests for operating levies were soundly defeated.
Board member Lisa Hatfield made the motion to proceed with the lease-purchase option.
"As far as I'm concerned, we have already been doing our homework. We have studied this. We have recommendations. We've run the numbers," Ms. Hatfield said. "I think it's time to move for-ward. What are we going to wait for? Why let this be a headache anymore?"
The unanimous vote was met by applause from at least half the 45 or more people at the meeting.
Those who have been critical of the plan said afterward that it will be even more difficult for the district to pass new operating levies anytime soon.
"I voted for every school levy in this school district," resident Rob Myerholtz said. "The thing that bothers me is they're not taking it to the voters."
Mr. Garber says a bond issue won't pass, Mr. Myerholtz said, "and it won't pass because they don't do what the people want them to do."
Back in 2004 when Otsego voters approved a bond issue to build a new high school using the Ohio School Facilities Commission's expedited program, it in effect paid the local share of a total $40 million building project up front.
The district was to get a $14 million credit from the state when it went ahead with the second phase of the project - an overhaul of the elementary buildings.
At the time, the board said it planned to build new elementaries in Weston and Haskins and renovate the Grand Rapids building. Mr. Garber said the district's share for three new buildings would be more than $12 million, compared to $3.9 million for a single school.
The state commission will credit the district $14.1 million and pay 55 percent of the balance of the new school.
"I think it's an absolute no-brainer," said Craig Valentine of Grand Rapids, Ohio.
Dan Sheperd of Tontogany also voiced support.
"We're in old, inefficient buildings, and it's our money. That $14 million is our money," he said. "If we walk away from it, if we don't take advantage of it now, it's gone."
Because the Ohio School Facilities Commission requires districts to have a 0.5 mill in place to maintain any new buildings, the board scheduled a public hearing for 5 p.m. Aug. 24 in the high school library to discuss redirecting 0.5 mill of its existing millage to a permanent improvement fund.
At the same time, it would allow the district's 1.6-mill permanent improvement levy to expire. That levy is collected at 0.85 mills so the move would reduce taxes by 0.35 mill, Mr. Garber said.
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