Old Fort discusses merger

OLD FORT – The Old Fort Board of Education presented the future of the district Monday night during a community meeting designed to inform the public about a possible transfer of territory with Bettsville Local Schools.

The Bettsville Local Schools Board of Education had a similar meeting Thursday. Bettsville presented four options to help the district avoid deficit spending.

The Old Fort board presented two similar options. One was to remain a district, make further cuts, including to staff and programs, and possibly seek additional funds through a levy. The other was to transfer Bettsville’s territory to Old Fort.

Old Fort Local Schools has a projected deficit of $244,938 as of June 30, said district Treasurer Jaime Pearson. Bettsville also is forecast to be in deficit spending at the end of the fiscal year, she said.

If the districts are to merge, both boards and the board from the North Central Ohio Educational Service Center would have to agree and vote on what Old Fort and Bettsville want, Pearson said. The process could take 30 to 60 days.

According to the Bettsville board, that district’s current debt is $305,000.

“Old Fort would assume both revenue and debt from Bettsville,” Pearson said. “We believe projected savings would more than cover the debt.”

With the consolidation, Pearson said Old Fort would close its elementary and house elementary students at the Bettsville building. The change would take effect for the next school year, she said.

Board Vice President Lindsay Sooy said there is a lot of interest in both communities.

“This decision has caused a lot of restless nights and nervous jitters,” she said. “Having the Bettsville building, that is in better condition, is not convenient, but I know it is the right thing to do. We have the opportunity to be proactive and become a larger school.”

Students who are brought to Old Fort now, would be bused to Bettsville, Sooy said. For those who already have a bus route, they would continue to be picked up at their regular stops.

Funds that are received by the districts from the state would be guaranteed for three years if everything goes through, Pearson said.

Staff from Bettsville would become blended with Old Fort’s staff. The Bettsville district and its board would dissolve, Pearson said. The combined district would have one superintendent and one treasurer. Old Fort would save on supplemental positions, running the elementary building, purchasing services and supplies and more, she said.

Old Fort Board President Gary Cole said the board is looking into beginning the search for a new superintendent. Jude Meyers, former superintendent, tendered his resignation last week.

Serving as interim superintendent is Larry Hodge, an educational consultant from the NCOESC.

Bettsville board president Michelle Davis said that the board accepted the resignation of Superintendent Gregg Pettit at the end of the summer. He is to continue this year, unless the decision to combine is approved, Davis said.

Residents of the Bettsville district might see an increase in taxes as the millage could increase by roughly 13 mills, Cole said.

If the merger proposal does not go through, Bettsville is to propose a levy for the May ballot, so the district would see an increase in taxes either way.

“Nothing is guaranteed,” he said.

Cole said he, Sooy and two other board members are to meet with NCOESC Superintendent Jim Lahoski to work out additional details today.

“This is an important issue for the district and there are still a lot of unknowns,” Pearson said. “A committee would be formed to ensure a smooth transition.”

To avoid deficit spending, Pearson said that so far Old Fort has entered into a shared services agreement with Bettsville, eliminated printers in the district, analyzed every purchase order, analyzed vendors to get the lowest price, had medical insurance changes, restructured grades six through eight and negotiated lower electricity prices. The district also is considering adding solar panels and undertaking a project to save energy costs.

Pearson said that if the district were to remain as it is, it would have to make more staff cuts, cut transportation, eliminate dual enrollment options, increase pay-to-play athletic fees, consider a levy and possibly eliminate physical education, music and art programs.

“This affects the kids, and the last thing we want to do is to have to cut art, or the library at the elementary,” Pearson said.

The idea of combining the districts has been discussed for years, Cole said.

He said that, for him, the primary reason that the plans didn’t work before was that the community of Old Fort didn’t want to discuss the possible change in name or mascot.

Several community members said they were for combining the districts.

One person said he felt it was the best move, but told the board not to rush into a decision until all the facts are known.