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Bedford Primary to remain open this year

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Only third grade will move to Bedford Elementary

By John Barnhart

In a surprising turn of events, Bedford County's school board voted to keep Bedford Primary School open. The school will house pre-school, kindergarten and first grade with only the second grade moving to Bedford Elementary School.

On Tuesday, the school board had reached a consensus, after a closed door meeting, to use Bedford Primary open only for an existing pre-school program. However, when the school board met Thursday night to vote on the budget, which included the Bedford Primary measure, the budget failed on a 4-4 vote. Mickey VanDerwerker, the city's representative on the school board, District 6 school board member Shirley McCabe, District 2 School board member David Vaden and District3 school board member Brad Whorley voted against it.

"I believe the primary school should stay K through 2," said Vaden, explaining his vote.

"I don't think we should be closing it this year," said VanDerwerker.

Others continued to support the Tuesday night consensus.

"I"m OK with having it as a pre-school," said District 5 school board member Julie Bennington.

The school board spent most of Thursday night's meeting struggling to come to an agreement, including on cuts that would balance the school budget.

During the discussion, District 1 school board member Joy Wright challenged those who wanted to keep Bedford Primary open to explain why. VanDerwerker provided the explanation.

VanDerwerker said that she favored the K-5 model for schools, but said that the numbers at Bedford Elementary and Bedford Primary are to tight right now.

"If we put them [the Bedford Primary students] in there [Bedford Elementary] with a few more kids, it becomes crowded."

VanDerwerker said that there will be 116 children in first grade and 118 in second grade, who were slated to go to Bedford Elementary School under the school board's earlier decision.

"So, you are getting close to having one more classroom," she said. "If you need one more classroom, we are in trouble." VanDerwerker said that Bedford Elementary would not have space for another classroom.

She also said that four special education resource teachers would have to share one classroom. VanDerwerker said that she was sure they could make it work, but asked why the school board would choose to create that situation.

"The library is too small now," she went on to say.

VanDerwerker said that the library is full now and won't have space to accommodate the books for the smaller children, or library programs for them.

Eventually School Board Chairman Debbie Hoback proposed a compromise, which ultimately passed on a 6-2 vote. Hoback proposed keeping Bedford Primary open with preschool, kindergarten and first grade in the building. She also proposed a series of cuts to balance the budget.

Vaden and Whorley both voted against the compromise proposal. They both favored keeping the school in it's current configuration, including third grade.

"I'm excited about the primary school," commented Heather Garrett.

Garrett has a daughter who will be sixth grade next year and expressed concern that the Bedford Elementary sixth graders will be the only sixth graders at Bedford Middle School. She said, however, that her daughter was fine with the move, although the girl commented, after a visit to the school that the gym "smells like feet."

"Surprise ending, huh?" commented Elisabeth Flynn.

Flynn called the compromise "progress" although she was still skeptical about the wisdom of closing a building built for small children when the community is having difficulty financing the construction of new buildings.

Flynn said that, with preschool students along with kindergarten and first grade, Bedford Primary will house 274 students. She said, based on figures that she got from the Virginia Department of Edcuatioin that eight elementary schools in the county — Big Island, Body Camp, Boonsboro, Huddleston, Moneta, Montvale, Otter River and Thaxton — will have fewer students that that.

"We are happy that the school won't be closed," said Tabitha King, who promised to keep up the fight next year.

"Look at the $1.1 million they could have had right now," commented Ricky Wilkerson, referring to the money the supervisors cut from the school budget after the school board's original budget included closing the school.

"I wish they had reached this point prior to losing the $1.1. million they had," said Tim Black.

Wilkerson later spoke during the meeting's citizen comment period.

"I'm not saying you had a bad plan," he told the school board, "you didn't sell it to us."

Wilkerson said that the school board needs to rethink the way it conducts itself. He said that they could have had all the people who had fought against them on the Bedford Primary issue fighting for them. He also told the school board that Bedford people will push back if somebody tries to push them.

At the meeting's end, school board member Joy Wright called the year a trying year. She criticized those who had opposed the school's budget.

"We have been threatened, bullied and blackmailed over this budget," she said.

"I can truly say I am no longer proud to live in Bedford County," Wright went on to say, concluding that she hopes there will be less animosity next year.

In order to balance the budget, a number of cuts were made. These included shifting money originally slated for the planned maintenance projects to the operating budget, scrapping plans to hire additional Title I teachers and eliminating the $200,000 budgeted for blended learning. Employee pay raises were scaled back from 1 percent to three-fourth's of a percent.

Due to a separate action, school employees won't be facing higher insurance premiums next year. Randy Hagler, the director of finance, told the school board that negotiations to merge school employees' health insurance with that of the rest of the county's employees was successful and the larger pool resulted in better offers from insurers.