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BETTSVILLE, Ohio — Generations of Bettsville High School graduates peer down from framed class photographs, a pictorial timeline that bridges father to son and stretches from the door of the one-roof school down both sides of a main hall.
Here, hanging near the office, the Bettsville class of 2014 has already found its proud place in that legacy, a long lineage that ends with this year’s 12 graduates.
Bettsville schools will cease to exist following final approval of a transfer that will absorb Ohio’s smallest mainland school district into the neighboring Old Fort school district, its once-fierce athletic foe.
By the time classes resume, the two school systems in the farm fields of northern Seneca County will be one district under Old Fort’s banner.
Gone will be the Bettsville Bobcats. The Bettsville school board will disband. Bettsville’s black and orange will fade to Old Fort’s brown and gold.
For bitty Bettsville, battling declining enrollment and financial difficulties, the decision to cede territory and identity is seen by some as sad but selfless — martyrdom by merger that gives Bettsville students the best chance for solid academics and athletics.
“We have such a love for that school, but it’s time,” said Harry “Butch” Burd of Tiffin, a 1959 graduate and baseball pitcher in the high school’s athletic hall of fame.
His mother’s class of three graduated in 1918, and he grew up in a house just down the street.
As Mr. Burd walked down the school hall, he pointed out his siblings’ pictures and marveled at memories made in the field house. Back then, each game was a town happening.
“You had to get here early when we played Old Fort,” he said.
He christened the court with 20 points during the gym’s inaugural basketball game in front of 700 fans. Now, displaced desks sit on the sidelines, and boxes crowd classrooms — evidence of bittersweet change under way in Bettsville. Football was never an option in the tiny country school.
Many merger details have been settled in advance of a meeting Tuesday of the North Central Ohio Educational Service Center’s governing board, which will vote on a resolution to officially transfer the Bettsville district to Old Fort effective June 30.
Leaders of the two districts agree, and Bettsville voters have not filed a petition to force a public vote.
Bettsville’s building will remain open to house kindergarten through sixth graders from throughout the expanded Old Fort district. Junior high and high school students from Bettsville will travel about five miles east to Old Fort.
“Old Fort is a great school. They’ve got good teachers, they’ve got good academics, and they have sports,” said Bettsville Mayor Gary Harrison, a 1962 graduate of Bettsville whose father graduated in 1938 and whose granddaughter is a member of this year’s final class.
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It’s been 22 years since a consolidation erased an Ohio school district, according to the Ohio Department of Education.
Bettsville has talked about how to survive for longer than that. Officials debated consolidation in the early 1970s, when the school’s enrollment of 350 students was more than double the current count of 148.
They resisted and persisted.
Students sold fruit, washed cars, and held carnivals to raise money for senior trips to South America, Europe, and the Caribbean. Parents and community members tagged along.
The district made several renovations to its 1950s school, which housed all grades in one site a few blocks from the village’s solo stoplight.
Class after graduating class joined their grandparents and parents on the school walls.
But Bettsville changed.
By the mid-1980s, layoffs at Basic Refractories cut hundreds of jobs and slashed tax revenue as the company pulled back on quarrying.
Renters replaced some homeowners, the mayor said, and students left Bettsville.
In February, Ohio Auditor Dave Yost placed Bettsville Schools in fiscal emergency. The district borrowed $775,000 from the state’s solvency assistance fund, and the school board rekindled merger talks.
The financial downfall caught the board somewhat off guard because its former treasurer, Roger Luhring, wasn’t forthcoming about bill payments, said Bettsville school board President Michelle Davis. Mr. Luhring, who could not be reached for comment, made other moves that concerned the board, such as cashing out vacation days for time he had taken off, she said.
To sever the relationship, the district agreed to pay him about $26,000 upon his resignation, effective June 30. He has been on leave since February.
The district would have faced a money mess regardless of treasurer troubles, but it exacerbated the problem, Ms. Davis said.
Merging with Old Fort emerged as a financial fix.
The districts already share a treasurer, Jaime Pearson, and Old Fort Superintendent Steve Anway took on Bettsville duties last month.
Combining the districts will save about $300,000 annually in salary and benefits by eliminating about 10 jobs, Ms. Pearson said. Old Fort, which previously lost a ballot proposal to replace its 1955 elementary school, benefits by using the Bettsville building and closing its elementary, she said.
Taxpayers in the two districts have similar effective residential millage rates — Bettsville at 21.46 mills and Old Fort at 22.08 mills. Once merged, the blended rate is estimated to increase to about 23.46 mills, partly because this is a re-evaluation year in Seneca County, Ms. Pearson said.
State legislation signed into law last week removed another hurdle by forgiving Bettsville’s debt of at least $775,000 so it won’t burden Old Fort. Without that, Bettsville would continue to drain the state, said Ohio Sen. Dave Burke (R., Marysville), who praised Bettsville for putting students above nostalgia.
“Closing a school district is akin to moving a cemetery in my book. There’s just a lot of sentimental value,” he said. “I think the world of them because that is the mature approach, to put your children first and yourself second.”
Community pride is a big reason some districts resisted consolidation in recent decades, said Damon Asbury, director of legislative services for the Ohio School Boards Association.
Four years ago, the fear of “losing a part of your village” was one factor that doomed a proposal to consider merging Arcadia with another Hancock County district, said Arcadia Superintendent Laurie Walles.
Ohio had 2,674 public school districts in 1915, and 614 exist today.
Financial incentives spurred many districts to consolidate during the 1950s, Mr. Asbury said. And though mergers have tapered off, more districts are sharing services or administration, he said.
Bettsville’s attempt to resolve financial problems by merger could have “statewide implications” that create a model for others, said Mr. Yost, whose office counts eight school districts, including Bettsville, in fiscal emergency.
“They are trailblazers in these two school districts,” he said.
For Old Fort and Bettsville parents, teachers, and alumni, the pending merger means change — big and small.
A committee made up of representatives from both communities will discuss how to preserve Bettsville traditions. There’s practical considerations, such as the signage outside the school, and historic questions, such as how to display Bobcat memorabilia.
“We don’t want to lose our heritage and our legacy,” Ms. Davis said.
Ann Miller, an Old Fort Elementary teacher about to enter her 20th year, moved supplies to Bettsville last week and expects children to be “accepting and flexible.”
Parents also are preparing. Gilberto Rojas has two sons attending Bettsville and thinks expanding the district will create a broader but still “family-orientated” school community.
Even some of Bettsville’s most ardent alumni understand the crisis and its conclusion.
After Nate Weyant won the 300-meter hurdles state championship in 2000, he returned to Bettsville to find an orange-and-black festooned convertible ready to parade him through the village.
“It’s tough to drive through town, and there’s houses that are abandoned now,” he said. “It’s just not the same hometown.”
Like many of his classmates, he moved away after college, found a job, and is raising his children in Florida.
He’s happy for the current students, who he thinks will have more opportunities in a larger district, but the loss in Bettsville is poignant.
“We just don’t want to be forgotten,” Mr. Weyant said.