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Quest continues to merge Bettsville, Old Fort

By MORGAN MANNS
STAFF WRITER

Bettsville and Old Fort school officials have continued to discuss the merger of the two districts.
Bettsville Schools was placed under a fiscal emergency at the beginning of February, with an estimated debt of $775,000. The continually soaring deficit caused the district to consider various options to address the problem, with the most popular being a merger with Old Fort Local Schools.
Jaime Pearson, Old Fort treasurer and Bettsville interim treasurer, met with Barbara Bechtel, state Department of Education fiscal consultant, regarding the financial feasibility of a merger between the districts.
Pearson said the districts will merge, “provided that Bettsville’s debt is forgiven.”
“That money needs to be repaid over the next two years,” she said. “We have every indication that (the merger) is possible. But it depends on whether or not (Bettsville) is required to repay that debt.”
Pearson said it’s not a normal thing to happen, to have a district forgiven of all its debt; however, she assured the districts are working closely with the state Department of Education, several government agencies, political figures and the state auditor’s office to pursue every avenue to debt forgiveness.
The biggest reason Bettsville is in such a large deficit is the low number of students who are enrolled in the district, according to Pearson.
“(Bettsville) has one of the lowest numbers in the state,” she said, comparing Bettsville’s approximate 145 students in K-12 to Old Fort’s 455 students.
Along with Bechtel, who is working closely with Bettsville Schools during its fiscal emergency, Pearson designed a five-year forecast for the districts to prove it would be financially beneficial for both districts if they were to combine.
The plan, according to Pearson, is to merge the districts before the start of the 2014-2015 academic school year.
If the merger is finalized, Bettsville District would become a campus of the Old Fort School District. The Bettsville building would be utilized as a K-6 school, while students in grades 7-12 would move to the Old Fort High School, according to Pearson.
Old Fort Elementary School would then be closed. Pearson said the building is not up to code and is in need of much repair. The merger would benefit Old Fort by saving it the money and time updating that building.
Bettsville’s school building and Old Fort’s high school building are roughly six miles apart.
“Bettsville would cease to exist as a district,” Pearson said. “It would take all of Bettsville and make it Old Fort. It would have one set of athletics, one board of education and so on.
“We anticipate minimal cuts and we also anticipate being able to give additional offers for students in terms of electives.”
Pearson said the details have not been 100 percent determined, but the communities are “all on board.”
“We’ve had community meetings, we’ve talked with staff and even some students and I can say that we’re 99 percent on the same page,” she said. “(The merger) would definitely be beneficial. We’re doing all we can to do what’s best for both districts.”

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