Otsego urged to halt new building
Written by By MARIE THOMAS Sentinel Education Editor
Friday, 29 January 2010 11:43
TONTOGANY - The "new" majority of the Otsego School Board received all sorts of advice Thursday, on what to do and what not to do about the planned elementary project.
Residents opposed to the construction of a centralized elementary in Tontogany continued to encourage the board's three new members to halt the planning process and continue studying the issue to determine whether it's feasible to keep elementaries in their home communities.
Proponents of the new school pointed out that the district has studied facilities since the 1970s, and it's time to move forward and build the school for prekindergarten through fifth grades.
None of the five board members - newly-elected Mark Tolles, Judy Snyder and Brad Anderson, and veterans James Harter and Elizabeth Gorski - responded during the 45 minutes of public comment.
At least 50 people attended the special meeting, which was called for a review of the budget, plus updates on all-day daily kindergarten and the construction project.
Weston resident Lloyd Jones said November's election results, in his opinion, showed that the will of the voting public differs from actions taken by the former school board, notably that voters want to maintain elementaries in their communities.
In November, incumbent Daren Garmenn was handily defeated in his bid for re-election, and two candidates who also were pro-centralized campus also were defeated. The three new members have been perceived as anti-construction: Tolles said prior to the election he did not favor closing elementaries in Grand Rapids and Haskins. However, Anderson and Snyder were more reserved: He indicated he preferred community schools but didn't think it likely that voters would support the cost of building new schools in each community, and she said she needed more information before making any decisions on the topic.
Weston residents, who have continued to voice their objections to the closing in 2009 of their elementary, have pleaded with this new board to halt the construction project and re-open their school.
Jones also urged the board to rescind any authority given to Superintendent Jim Garber to negotiate any items related to the construction project.
"This is not meant to be negativity," Jones stated, adding there are people in the district willing to help.
Resident Beth Stimmel questioned the "new majority" that kept being mentioned. "Why is it now more acceptable that three people are making decisions, not five?" she asked.
She also referred to election results, but this time May 2009 when voters had the chance to pass new operating money with the promise that all three elementary buildings would remain open at least for another year. Sixty-seven percent of those voting opposed the issue.
Stimmel told the board members she hoped they were there to consider all options, "not with preconceived things you already planned to do."
Weston resident Rob Myerholtz said it was "extremely unfortunate" that the previous board "rushed into" a lease agreement before the new board took office. He asked the board to suspend the master plan until the economy improves.
Past school board member Lisa Hatfield, of Grand Rapids, who chose to not run for re-election in November, stood and voiced her disappointment with some of the comments. "I thought we had a better and strong community than this."
As for the idea for keeping three elementaries: "Where is the money going to come from to pay for that plan?" she asked. "Economically it (the decision to consolidate) was the best thing for the longevity of this school district."
She continued, "If you want to go deeper in debt, you need to stop it (the project) right now," and "this is a good plan that has been looked at from every single aspect."
Tom Zulch, of Weston, suggested that residents rally around and rehab their community schools, and that the board halt the new elementary project "until we get all these finances squared away."
But according to Garber, if the district were to halt the project at this stage, it would be on the hook for at least $1.7 million - nearly half of the $3.9 million that is needed to build the new school.
The district has paid - or is obligated to pay - about $206,000 for work already completed. The $4 million loan taken out on the project could be called in three years, at which time Otsego would need to pay at least $900,000 in interest - and as much as $3 million, according to the superintendent. Also, defaulting on the loan would "severely damage" the district's credit rating, he added.
If Otsego does not use its $14 million credit with the Ohio School Facilities Committee this year, there is no guarantee when, or if, that money would again become available, Garber reminded the audience.
And, the district has saved $588,000 by closing Weston - that would be the cost to reopen the building, he said.
"It's not as simple as saying 'Hold that check,'" Garber stated.
Design development for the new school is expected to continue through September, with construction starting in April 2011 on district property located southwest of the high school. Students would move into the building for the 2013-14 school year.