Building A New BeginningSeptember 2, 2017
Story by Allen Laman
Photos by Sarah Ann Jump
When the school leaves the small community, the small community dies.
That was the fear that shot through the town of Otwell when the Pike County School Corporation closed Otwell Elementary at the end of the 2015-16 school year in the face of a multi-million dollar deficit. Residents like Mike Houtsch, Bob Rhodes and others feared the worst.
Less than a year later, in the early afternoon hours on a rainy Saturday in April, Rhodes and Houtsch, along with local parents and children gathered on an empty plot of land in northeastern Pike County — less than a mile from the still-standing Otwell Elementary — to break ground on Otwell Miller Academy, the first charter school in the county and the community’s answer to maintaining tradition and vitality in the town of under 500. As many of them saw it, they were building a new beginning after their old hub of life was unjustly snatched away from them.
Getting to that opening day, however, was a bumpy and winding process filled with delays, questions and many moments of defeat.
“In this (process), I can’t tell you the number of times — more than two handfuls worth, more than 20 times — when the project faced a really dark period, and then totally out of the blue, totally unpredicted, all of the sudden, something happened,” said Bob Rhodes, president of the community group Friends of Otwell. “A letter came in, a donor showed up, something got clarified and so many different things. It was like the sun coming out on a rainy day. Suddenly, we were back in business and we were marching forward.”
The school year began in area churches for the Otwell Miller Academy students on Aug. 16, pulling the kids back home from neighboring Pike County elementary schools. Wednesday marked the first day of school in the new Otwell Miller Academy facility.
Prior to Otwell Elementary’s closing, Pike County Schools had been operating on a deficit for several years. Pike County Superintendent Suzanne Blake said that from what she can determine, the corporation did not properly adjust its spending after a change in the state funding formula around the turn of the decade, leading to a million dollar general fund deficit when she started in her position in 2012. That would later balloon to a $2.7 million hole. At the time of its closing, Pike County Schools officials estimated the Otwell building also required between $2 million and $3 million in repairs and renovations. Combined with the fact that it was the corporation’s smallest school, School Board President David Waltz said all signs pointed to closing Otwell Elementary.
He said the choice was difficult, but noted it was a business decision. The last thing the corporation wanted to do was close a school, he said, and Blake noted the board and administration went through a laundry list of measures including opting to leave vacant staff positions like the assistant superintendent unfilled, slashing all employee wages, cutting administrator insurance and eliminating middle school sports before opting to shutter the school’s doors. Pike County residents also voted decisively against a tax referendum the board said would have saved the corporation about $2.3 million annually and possibly would have helped keep the school afloat.
“It’s the business of education,” Waltz said. “It was a community decision. Really, it was a county decision because we had to look at children throughout the county, not just the Owell community.”
Houtsch immediately thought the closing of the school could be the beginning of the end for Otwell. When he was in high school, Velpen closed its school and Otwell absorbed it. Now, he says that community is lacking its central hub, and he didn’t want to see Otwell go down a similar path.
“I think that’s the whole reason people got excited and interested in having a school here in the community again,” Houtsch said. “Because they were afraid of that, too. The possibility that there might be a whole lot different Otwell than there is now.”
“Different” as in the town shrinking and Otwell businesses packing up and moving out. When it was announced that the school would in fact be closing at the end of the 2015-16 school year, Houtsch said the community as a whole shot to anger and was upset with the school corporation. Otwell Elementary was one of the top-performing elementaries in the area: In 2011, it was named a National Blue Ribbon School and in 2014 the school was named to the list of Indiana Four Star Schools. Otwell received an “A” ranking from the Indiana Department of Education in 2014 shortly before its closing was announced, while Petersburg and Winslow Elementary both received Cs.
He doesn’t blame anyone for the school’s closing, but he doesn’t like that the school board agreed to do it. He knows it’s a business, like Waltz said, but he also thinks there were other options the corporation could have pursued, though he admits he doesn’t have an understanding of everything the corporation was going through at the time.
“I just think that closing schools is a mistake, especially in a rural community like this,” Houtsch said. “In a rural community like this where a school is the heart and soul of the community, I just think every absolute option should have been exhausted and closing the school should have been their absolute last option. And if they felt like that’s what it was, then that was their decision.”
Initially, Rhodes didn’t want to be a part of the Friends of Otwell group. He’s a former Air Force colonel who was perfectly happy in retirement. Rhodes remembers the community was angry before the group officially stood up, and he didn’t want to hurt the operation by becoming part of it.
After several community meetings that Rhodes described as “flailing,” he and Houtsch laid the framework of the group. The two Otwell natives shook hands and promised they’d see the journey through to the end. Shortly after, Houtsch and Rhodes founded the Friends of Otwell with a handful of other concerned residents.
The Friends of Otwell group began meeting at the Jefferson Township Community Center in June 2015, shortly after Pike County Schools announced Otwell Elementary was facing the possibility of closure. The group met regularly at the community center, where it provided a platform for charter and construction updates as well as briefed community attendees of past and upcoming fundraisers.
As the group pushed forward, it was denied its first charter application with Ball State University in April 2016, marking what Houtsch called one of the lowest points in the journey. (Charter schools are required to be authorized by a recognized entity like Ball State but are funded by the State like traditional public schools.)
Less than six months later, good news came. The group received a tentative charter from Grace College in Winona Lake, which was fully granted last month. With time dwindling in June, Friends of Otwell leaders pledged to erect the school building — consisting of nine classrooms, several administration offices, and a large room where before- and after-school childcare is offered — from the ground up in less than two months. The school eventually missed its planned start date and had to utilize Otwell churches for the first two-and-a-half weeks of classes.
Houtsch knew all along that the group’s members were in new territory, but it was important to him that they keep pushing forward through the unknown. Questions in June directed at how feasible it was to actually build a school in seven weeks were commonly met with responses like, “No one’s told me it’s not doable,” or “As far as I know, we’re still on schedule.” After construction finally began, Board Legal Chairwoman Elisabeth Luff was told by a contractor that the school was jamming what should be a six-month project into a third of the time.
“The first stick on that building went up on the fifth of July,” Rhodes said. “You show me a building around here that’s been built that well in that short of time and I’ll ask you for the papers on it. I don’t know of anybody who could have done that.”
All the while, the husk of the old Otwell Elementary sat vacant just down the highway from the new structure. Blake recently said the old Otwell Elementary building could be utilized as a career and technical education center for Pike County Schools as soon as January.
Securing the land for Otwell Miller Academy was difficult. Securing the funding was a problem throughout and will continue to be tough for the group. The group has a loan with Old National Bank that is collateralized with bonds, stocks, farmland and other donations. Though they didn’t know what the final bill for the school construction would be at press time, Rhodes and Luff estimated it would be close to $700,000. Rhodes said the need to raise money will never end.
He added that he has to believe God had a hand in the process. Group members pulled together their individual expert services to make Otwell Miller a reality — Houtsch works as a architectural studies professor at Vincennes University and has contracting experience which helped with construction, for example. Luff provides independent legal counsel for Kimball Electronics and worked through the legalese. Rhodes said he is in awe of everyone who has helped the school and everyone who continues to help.
He’s talking about those community members who worked in the various Friends of Otwell fundraisers, volunteered time and hands inside the school during the construction phase or helped in any other way.
Houtsch worked at the building site every day for the past six weeks completing tasks like applying drywall and installing doors and cabinets. He plans on returning to apply the finishing touches over the next several months. Luff said she and fellow board members and volunteers devoted an “astronomical” amount of time on evenings and weekends to plan and help build the new structure. She recently ran in the 500 Festival Mini Marathon in Indianapolis and compared the race to the months of planning and execution the board executed as the school rose from the ground.
“It’s painful,” Luff said. “You really just want to stop because it’s not fun anymore. It started out as a great idea — let’s go run a marathon. But then you get part way in it and you’re like, ‘OK, I’m over this.’ But you realize that you can’t just quit midway, you’ve got people waiting for you. You’ve got people relying on you. You’ve got to get to the finish line.”
And after a blitz-filled summer, Friends of Otwell finally made it past the checkered flag. There is still work to be done — the school’s electronic and online prescience isn’t fully up and going and the lunch program won’t begin until the first of October — but students have occupied the building and the town’s new beginning has begun.
“I don’t know whether it’s in the water or in the air,” Rhodes said. “Whether it’s the influence of our backgrounds — I can’t put my finger on it. But there’s an “it” factor out there. Whatever it is, these people can deliver.”
The most important ingredient, he said, is vision. He’s already heard rumblings that the school won’t last from the same people who said it would never make it off the ground.
“There’s plenty of people around who tell you why things can’t be done and why things won’t work,” Rhodes said on the building’s opening day. “We here in the Friends of Otwell have had to believe in ourselves for a long time now. So far, our faith in our friends and community has paid off for us.”
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