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Published: Thursday, 8/26/2010

State pledges $7.3M to help Lake recover Preliminary work on new high school sought

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS - Ohio education officials have put together a $7.3 million assistance package for Lake Local Schools to use in replacing its tornado-destroyed high school.

Lake officials got the happy news yesterday, just as some of its high school students prepared to return to class today in a temporary space at Owens Community College.

The Ohio School Facilities Commission today is expected to approve $4.8 million from its emergency-assistance program to get preliminary work on a new high school under way.

Additionally, the Ohio Department of Education plans to ask the state controlling board to release $2.5 million in emergency assistance.

"We are saying [Lake] will have this $4.8 million available during the design and construction phases of the high school," said Rick Savors, school facilities spokesman. "They are working with their insurance carrier to reach a settlement, but they need to start moving on the design phase and they need to do it now."

At a news conference yesterday in the middle school, Lake Superintendent Jim Witt expressed delight but said he was still trying to digest the information.

The funding, he said, represented "another hurdle cleared" as the district worked to have a new or rebuilt high school open for the 2012-2013 school year.

Gov. Ted Strickland, in a statement released by his office, praised the Lake community and emphasized his desire to help with state funds.

''I've seen firsthand the courage of our young people in the immediate aftermath of the storm, and as Lake Local students are going back to school, we want them to know that we will support them in every way we can," Governor Strickland said. "We are committed to providing the best possible facilities for our students because we knowthat the quality of our classrooms will help determine the quality of their educational experience."

Mr. Witt said he did not know how much of the eventual cost to replace or rebuild the high school the state grants would cover, but "From the very beginning of the process, we were told 'you'll never be made whole,'•" he explained.

Mr. Savors put the tentative estimate for reconstruction at $18.8 million and said the $4.8 million in Emergency Assistance Program funds is roughly what the school would have qualified for if it had gone through routine channels for a new construction/renovation project.

"This is the type of act of God the program is designed for," he said.

Mr. Witt said yesterday that the district and Travelers, its insurance carrier, remained in negotiations. The insurance company wants Lake to rebuild the high school using the 53 percent of the structure that is standing. School officials want to rebuild from the ground up, noting that part of the remaining building is original, dating to 1953.

The dollar figure of the state grants could change as work progresses and assumes student enrollment of 465 students at the 9-12 school.

Department of Education spokesman Scott Baker said the purpose of his agency's funding is to assist Lake in continuing operational expenses.

Such costs could include additional transportation costs, replacement of damaged classroom materials, and space rental, if necessary, he said.

The school was destroyed by a swath of tornadoes that swept through northwest Ohio during the night of June 5 to 6. The school was forced to move its high school graduation ceremony, and returning students are heading for Owens instead of their old home.

The state's requests for a federal emergency declaration and assistance for Wood, Fulton, and Ottawa counties were rejected because the Federal Emergency Management Agency determined that the damage was not beyond the ability of local and state governments and volunteer agencies to respond.

The U.S. Small Business Administration, however, did issue such a declaration, allowing local residents to seek low-interest federal loans to cover uninsured losses.

State Rep. Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green) was among those attending a news conference at Lake yesterday.

Mr. Gardner contrasted the state's actions with that of the federal government.

"People were quite frankly surprised at the federal response or lack of response," he said. "We knew we should go to bat on what was right and reasonable for the Lake school district and we think that was achieved."

Staff writer Carl Ryan contributed to this report.

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com,

or 614-221-0496.



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