By AMY GAREIS

News-Herald Staff Writer

HOPEDALE – In a surprise move, the Harrison Hills City School Board of Education chose to forego another levy attempt and instead close three elementary schools.

The change occurred during the Wednesday meeting at Harrison Hopedale Elementary School, where the agenda included further discussion on the placement of a 9.35-mill levy on the November ballot to generate funds and help pull the district out of debt for the short term. The district ended the year with a balance of roughly $559,000 and was looking at an estimated $1.4 million deficit in Fiscal Year 2011. Prior ideas to close Harrison Lakeland and Harrison Jewett Elementary Schools were shot down and the levy became a Plan B, although officials said it might keep the district in the black for about two years.

Instead, talks turned to rescind the levy alternative and immediately suspend classes at Lakeland, Jewett and Harrison Westgate Elementary.

“One of the things we need to discuss as a school board is we have a letter to present to the state on how to proceed with the deficit,” said Superintendent George Ash. “We have until Aug. 4 to look at the levy issue on the November ballot.”

The measure would generate about $2 million annually over a five-year period. Harrison Hills has operated on a total of 24.75 mills, with a total of 19.15 mills prior to 1976 and a 6.6-mill additional levy that passed in 1991. Further attempts for general fund levies and bond issues have failed at the polls but voters have supported permanent improvement levies to maintain the current buildings.

“I do not feel a levy at all would pass in this county at this time. I motion to rescind placement of the levy on the ballot,” said board member Bob Hugh.

He further motioned to suspend classes at the three elementary sites pursuant to the Ohio Revised Code and in light of the deficit and declining enrollment. Hugh recommended that Jewett Elementary students head to the Harrison Central Middle School in Scio, which would be known as Harrison Elementary School and handle grades Pre-K to sixth; students at Lakeland and Westgate would head to Harrison Hopedale Elementary, also for Pre-K to sixth grades. In turn, Harrison Central High School would incorporate grades 7-12 in a joint junior/senior high facility.

“I agree with Bob that with the climate in this county, a levy will not pass,” Board Vice President Crawshaw said. “We need to do something internally before we ask the voters. We need to take fiscal action before we tell the voters we’ve done all we can do.”

The final vote passed by a narrow margin, with Kenny, Crawshaw and Hugh in favor and Allen and Kinney Thompson opposing. Ash later said the latest closure plan should keep the district in the black for at least two years, but beyond that was unknown.

“We still have an enormous projected deficit at this time and are pleased the staff worked to contain healthcare costs,” he said, referring to the insurance committee’s ability to negotiate with the healthcare provider and lower costs from 18 to 5 percent, containing $350,000 in the process.

Another positive was the disbursement of more than $280,000 in back taxes paid by the former BayForm Company. Ash said that was a “one-time” shot in the arm; however, District Treasurer Roxane Harding said the closures should eliminate the Fy ’11 deficit.

Roxane Starkey, president of the Harrison Hills Teachers’ Association, said officials would talk about the big move, which could take place over the next two weeks. “Mr. Ash and I are going to meet to discuss the reorganization. The teachers will support the move, and we’ll get the job done and move about with business.”

Pictured are the Harrison County Community Improvement Corp. presenting Harrison Hills City Schools with a portion of the back taxes received from the former BayForm Company; starting left, Debbie Kenny, school board president; Superintendent George Ash; Dale Arbaugh, CIC president; Bob Hendricks, CIC vice president; and John Jones, CIC treasurer.