Opponents to central elementary campus at Otsego want issue placed on the ballot PDF Print E-mail
Written by By JENISE FOUTS Sentinel Staff Writer   
Saturday, 25 July 2009 07:08
WESTON - The Otsego Board of Education has said times have changed, and it can't be held to the campaign promise made five years ago to keep the district's three elementaries. Otsego Citizens for Neighborhood Schools agree times have changed, so the district shouldn't go into further debt to build a central elementary campus.
During the group's meeting on Wednesday, guests expressed concern about a greater deficit than the $2.2 million projected for 2013 if the board goes through with a lease-purchase option to fund construction of its central elementary. Superintendent James Garber estimated the annual payment on the loan to be around $300,000, or 1.5 mills, during a July 16 meeting in Tontogany of persons in favor of the issue. If his estimate is accurate, the citizens group said every three years adds almost one million to the district's deficit.
"With the operating deficit they're projecting in 2011-12 of almost $1 million, that means they'll come back and ask for millage for that," said Rob Myerholtz. "If by 2013 they're looking at a $2.2 million deficit, the millage goes ballistic after that," as high as 10, 11 or 12 mills.
"Times have changed. They've changed for the worst," said Brad Anderson. "The three buildings we have are paid for. They're fairly inexpensive to run." He noted utility bills (gas and electric) for all three totaled about $115,000.
Anderson added Otsego residents were told the district would save $1 million if it closed all three elementaries. If only $200,000 is being saved from Weston's closing, he questioned if the district can really save $800,000 from closing Grand Rapids and Haskins. "That's not possible."
Tom Zulch estimated the staff savings would be very little closing the three buildings since teachers won't be laid off, only "a couple cooks and a secretary."
He reported the board did not see a utility savings from building the central school for grades 7-12. For the 2008-09 school year it cost $146,157.90 more for gas and electric compared to the costs before the new building was constructed. Much of the electric bill increase was for air conditioning.
He said when Elmwood got its first bills with its centralized K-12 campus, it called Hancock-Wood Electric about them. "The end result of a new building is new millage," he said.
Jim Repolesk expressed concern the lawyer who explained the lease-purchase funding option to the school board told members they could let the current permanent-improvement levy run out, then rewrite it with new language to include the lease-purchase option annual payment.
Guests were encouraged to put pressure on school board members through phone calls and e-mails to put funding the centralized school on the ballot as a bond issue.
Throughout the meeting, these ideas were stressed:
¥ These are the wrong economic times to add further debt to the school district since voters are struggling with layoffs, or new jobs paying less than workers previously earned. The district could ask voters to approve 10 to 15 mills in the future to pay its operating costs.
¥ The three current elementaries have efficient new boilers and two of the three have new roofs. Children can continue to receive "excellent" educations in them as determined by the district's annual educational rating. Only Haskins Elementary can use some renovation.
¥ People assume the district will save money going from three schools down to one. But square footage, plus additional lighting and air conditioning, will sharply increase operating costs.
¥ Otsego's bus fleet is aging and will have to be addressed.
¥ The way people have voiced their opinions to the school board is at the voting booth, turning down new millage.
¥ The board does not get any of its $14 million credit from OSFC until after the new building is built. That means the board must get a loan for the entire amount of the construction, after which it may not be able to pre-pay the construction loan down because investors are counting on receiving loan interest for years.

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