Construction resumed Monday north of Ohio on the Big Sky wind farm, which may be operational by next winter. The wind farm's approaching completion has implications on the question of closing Ohio High School, although opinions differ on whether the money generated by the wind farm can solve the district's problems.
High taxes and fewer academic and social opportunities for students are two complaints frequently cited by proponents of deactivating OHS or consolidating with or annexing to another district. However, the revenue the wind farm is expected to bring Ohio's grade and high school districts could allow the school boards to lower Ohio's high tax rate and provide additional opportunities for students.
According to Ohio superintendent Sharon Flesher, once operational, the wind farm will increase the equalized assessed valuation by more than $19 million, based on $120,000 per megawatt for the 74 2.2-megawatt wind turbines planned for the district. The current EAV is about $13 million, Flesher said, so the wind farm will more than double the value. This should bring an additional $803,000 to the high school district and $735,000 to the grade school district per year, Flesher said. Those figures represent a lot of money for a small school, she noted.
"And in a short time we'll have that."
Big Sky's progress had been on hold since late last year when construction stopped for winter, according to Susan Olivarria, director of communications for wind farm developer Edison Mission Group. Due to financing problems and technical issues with the turbines, Edison Mission Group was unable to resume full construction in February as planned, although crews did perform some construction on roads and the operations and maintenance building, which was completed in July, she said.
Now the project is back on track, Olivarria confirmed. The 14,000-acre wind farm will boast 114 2.2-megawatt wind turbines - 56 in Bureau County and 58 in Lee County. Erection of the turbines will begin in spring, she said, but the prep work that started this week will be completed ahead of time.
"We already put a little over $1 million into construction work and prep work for it, and now we start full-fledged in finishing up those roads and pouring concrete for erecting the turbines on," Olivarria said. Edison Mission Group's investment in Big Sky will total approximately $500 million, she said.
Developers hope to have the wind farm completed and operational by late 2010 or early 2011, Olivarria said.
In anticipation of the wind farm's completion, Flesher already was working this week on a resolution of intent to reduce taxes, she said.
"One of the first things we want to do is reduce taxes in the community. The community has supported this school at a very high tax rate for a long time. This is the board's way of being responsible and saying thank you," Flesher explained.
The extra funds brought in by the wind farm also will help strengthen Ohio's curriculum, she said.
Jack Piper, who served on the Future of Ohio High School committee, suggested that in addition to lowering tax rates, the wind farm dollars could be used to hire more teachers and pay them more competitive salaries. Also according to Piper, the high school could even offer scholarships to all Ohio High School graduates, providing each student with several thousand dollars to help pay for college or vocational school. This opportunity might attract new families to the community, he said.
"We don't have many graduates. Even if we doubled the number of graduates, there would be enough," he said.
But despite the various uses the district might find for the wind farm money once it materializes, there's one shortcoming the extra revenue can't change: Ohio High School's declining enrollment.
"It's not about the money," said Rick Wilkin.
Wilkin is part of the Committee of Ten circulating a petition in an attempt to put a referendum on the ballot in February proposing Ohio High School's annexation into Princeton High School.
"It's about the opportunities that are available. I guess they can offer more classes, but you still might only have one or two kids in the class," Wilkin said. With only a few participants in class, their discussions won't offer the same rich, perspective-broadening experience a larger, more diverse class could provide, he said.
Instead of debating whether the high school should close, Wilkin said the community should be discussing "When does small become too small?"
"When do small classes become a detriment instead of a benefit?" he asked.
While the question the Committee of Ten hopes to get on the ballot proposes annexing into Princeton, Wilkin said the school board also could add its own questions proposing other options, even keeping the school open. The Committee of Ten's goal is not to close the school, Wilkin emphasized, but to ensure voters in the school district have a voice in how their tax dollars are spent and how their children are educated.
"If the school board would put this issue on the ballot, we (the Committee of Ten) wouldn't need to exist," Wilkin said.