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Published: Wednesday, 3/24/2010

Otsego board halts 3-elementary plan

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

TONTOGANY - Any hope of keeping elementary schools in three towns served by Otsego Local Schools died Monday night with a 3-2 vote to proceed with construction of a single elementary in Tontogany.

Under the plan, schools in Grand Rapids and Haskins will close. A third elementary building, in Weston, closed at the end of the last school year.

"You've already got people moving out of town because there's no school," a disappointed Weston Mayor Howard Lashuay said yesterday after learning of the board's vote.

Although the school board decided last summer to replace the three aging schools with one new school at the junior high/high school campus in Tontogany, newly elected board president Mark Tolles made a motion Feb. 25 to stop the building project.

The board met with its attorney to learn what the financial implications would be if the project were halted - projections ranged from a low of $920,000 to a worst-case scenario of $8 million - before voting Monday night to stay with the single-school plan.

New board member Brad Anderson, of Weston, voted with veteran board members Jamie Harter and Elizabeth Gorski to move forward with the project. Mr. Tolles and another new board member, Judy Snyder, voted against it.

It was a disappointment to officials in the villages that will lose their local schools - buildings that often serve as the center of community activities.

"As the mayor of the village of Grand Rapids, I had hoped that we could keep the community elementary schools," Judy Keifer said. "Having a community school is a definite asset in the growth of our villages."

Weston's Mayor Lashuay said he was disappointed in Mr. Anderson, who in his election campaign had pledged his support for keeping a school in Weston.

Mr. Anderson reiterated yesterday that he did not like the central elementary plan but said it was "simply too far gone to change."

"I hope that with time and energy, those that supported the community schools will see that this might not be the best situation, but we all have to play with the cards we are dealt," he said.

Superintendent Jim Garber said the district already has taken out a $4 million bank loan, hired an architect and construction manager, and developed preliminary design plans for the new school, which the district hopes to open by the 2012-13 school year.

Mr. Garber, who recommended the board continue with the building project, said he was relieved.

"It was very tough for all five board members," Mr. Garber said. "I understand the vote, and I'm very happy it was 3-2 to proceed because I do think it's in the best financial interest of the school."

In 2004, Otsego voters approved a bond issue to build a high school using the Ohio School Facilities Commission expedited program. That meant the district shouldered the entire local share of a districtwide building project in exchange for a $14 million credit that would be applied when it overhauled the elementary buildings and renovated what is now the junior high school.

At the time, the board said it would build schools in Weston and Haskins and renovate the Grand Rapids building.

Last year, the board cited declining state funding and no new local operating dollars in abandoning that plan in favor of building one new school for all students in kindergarten through fifth grade. It 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.

Contact Jennifer Feehan at:

jfeehan@theblade.com

or 419-724-6129.



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