By BRIAN BOHNERT
BETTSVILLE — A new era in local education officially began Wednesday as Old Fort Local Schools opened its Bettsville campus for the first time.
The 2014-2015 school year commenced bright and early Wednesday morning as nearly 600 students throughout Seneca County closed the book on summer and started the next chapter of their education in the newly-combined school district.
Bettsville’s merger with its once fierce rival, Old Fort, was given the go-ahead June 24.
Gone are the Bettsville Bobcats. The black and orange that once pumped like lifeblood into the heart of the former school district has now dissolved into Old Fort’s brown and gold. The former Bettsville School, located at 118 Washington St., is now Old Fort Elementary School — the new home of the Stockaders.
However, there were no tears shed Wednesday morning. As the few remaining clouds broke apart over the small village of Bettsville, eager, smiling faces poured out of school buses and into the building.
The merger of the two districts has brought quite the change for students in the area. Instead of returning to their old stomping grounds, Bettsville students in grades 7-12 started the year in Old Fort High School. Students in grades K-6 used to attending classes at Old Fort are now making themselves at home roughly six miles away at the Bettsville campus.
“The comments I hear most are: ‘This should have happened 20 years ago. This should have happened 30 years ago. This should have happened 40 years ago,'” said Stephen Anway, Old Fort superintendent. “Bettsville’s board; Old Fort’s board; state legislators; everybody had to come together to make it happen.”
To help commemorate the historic event, and to thank school officials and the community at-large, state Sen. Dave Burke (R-Marysville) attended the first day of classes at Old Fort Elementary.
During his visit, Burke praised local educators, as well as parents for putting the needs of the children over nostalgia.
“Most of this gets hung up on somebody’s school colors or the fact that grandma went to this building,” Burke said. “They put that aside and thought about their kids instead.”
The two neighboring districts began to consider a merger at the beginning of February when Bettsville was placed under a fiscal emergency with an estimated debt of $775,000.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich signed the amended House Bill 487 June 18, forgiving all of Bettsville’s debt. The section of the bill applying to the districts is the “debt forgiveness for certain consolidating schools.”
According to the bill, it “provides that if the voluntary transfer of a school district results in the complete dissolution of that district and satisfies certain specified conditions, the acquiring school district will acquire the transferring district’s territory free and clear of any indebtedness owed by the transferring district to the state Solvency Assistance Fund.”
“The parents were there. The teachers and the school boards were there. All I had to do, as I jokingly say, was get out my eraser and erase this operational debt,” Burke said. “We stopped a perpetual bleed and we gave children a future they would not have otherwise had.”
All students formerly enrolled in Bettsville’s school district automatically became Old Fort students with the transfer of property; however, students had the option to open enroll into other districts.
In a previous interview with the Review Times, Old Fort Treasurer Jaime Pearson said the biggest reason for Bettsville’s debt was declining enrollment, with only 148 students K-12 enrolled in the 2013-2014 academic year.
Additionally, Pearson has said the district foresee no debt problems arising in the immediate future as a result of the merger. They put together a combined five-year forecast that shows the district won’t have any more deficit spending.
“It’s been hard; but, in the end, I truly believe we did what was best for the kids,” Anway said while greeting students Wednesday morning. “And if you look around, you see a lot of smiles. It’s a good day.”
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