In the past two decades, decreases in state aid, depressed property values, and anti-tax sentiments, among other things, have forced local governments and school districts to do more with less. Communities have tried to operate more efficiently by sharing administrative duties and police, fire, and other services.
Overall, though, local governments and schools have moved too slowly, often hindered by parochialism and turf battles. Nor have they looked hard enough at more-sweeping remedies, such as mergers.
What happened to Bettsville Schools this year should become a model for the entire state, especially other school districts in financial distress. The Blade recently reported that Ohio’s smallest mainland school district is merging with neighboring Old Fort School District.
When classes resume, the two school systems in the farm fields of northern Seneca County will be one district. The Bettsville Bobcats will be history. The school’s colors of black and orange will yield to Old Fort’s brown and gold.
Perhaps the merger could have been handled more deftly. Instead of putting both districts under Old Fort’s banner, the communities could have gotten together and chosen a new mascot and school colors for the combined district.
Even so, the merger will save roughly $300,000 a year in salaries and benefits. The districts already shared a treasurer, and Old Fort Schools Superintendent Steve Anway took on Bettsville duties this year. Recent state legislation prudently forgave a Bettsville debt of $775,000, so that the money owed would not burden the new district or impede the merger.
Bettsville and Old Fort were fierce athletic rivals. Community pride is one hurdle to consolidation, but new loyalties quickly replace old allegiances — at least among young people. In any case, what’s most important is the quality of children’s education.
To that end, state government ought to encourage — and perhaps even require — some districts to consolidate. Ohio’s 614 school districts still duplicate too many services that larger, consolidated districts could manage more efficiently. Such mergers would not only save money, but also widen educational opportunities for students who attend districts that are too small to offer some courses.
Mergers aren’t a panacea, nor are they easy. Besides matters of community pride and identity, practical questions remain: What happens to teacher contracts in the combined district? Will students have to travel farther to school?
Still, the Bettsville merger was practically inevitable. In truth, it should have occurred long ago, as the district battled declining enrollment and revenues.
Bettsville officials considered consolidation in the early 1970s, when an enrollment of 350 students was more than double this year’s count of 148. A 1950s-era school housed all grades at one site near the village’s only stoplight.
In the mid-1980s, local layoffs cut hundreds of jobs and slashed tax revenue. In February, Ohio Auditor Dave Yost placed Bettsville Schools in fiscal emergency. After borrowing $775,000 from the state’s solvency assistance fund, the school board started to talk again about merger.
This year’s combination may be the first consolidation to erase an Ohio school district in 22 years. Many districts merged during the 1950s for financial reasons. Ohio had more than 2,600 public school districts in 1915.
Still, more districts need to consider merging, especially the seven other Ohio systems that face fiscal emergencies. To encourage efficiency, the state should create a commission that would review school district boundaries and suggest which districts should merge — and equally important, whether any larger districts should break up into smaller units.
Such a commission should be nonpartisan and include representatives of school boards and employee unions, administrators, parents, and students. Ohio needs to organize its school districts in ways that will best educate its children. The merger of Bettsville and Old Fort can help show the way.
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