Bedford Primary School to remain open

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By John Barnhart

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

    Controversy has surrounded the school budget ever since the School Board proposed closing the school early this year. The School Board and Superintendent Dr. Douglas Schuch have been at odds with the County Board of Supervisors, parents of students at BPS and even, at times, with each other.
    The supervisors cut the school budget by $1.1 million after the school’s closing was approved and threatened to cut it even more if any school was closed. That led to two meetings last week by the School Board that, eventually, left BPS open, with some changes.
    Last Tuesday, the School Board had reached a consensus after a closed door meeting, to leave Bedford Primary open only for an existing pre-school program. However, when the 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 board member Shirley McCabe, District 2 board member David Vaden and District 3 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,” stated 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 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 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 too tight right now.
    “If we put them [the Bedford Primary students] in there [Bedford Elementary] with a few more kids, it becomes crowded,” she said.
    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 Bedford Elementary would not have space for that additional classroom.
    She also said 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 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 or programs for the smaller children.
    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, moving second grade to Bedford Elementary. The sixth grade classes will move over to Bedford Middle School.
    Hoback 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 its current configuration.
    “I’m excited about the Primary School,” commented Heather Garrett, about the decision.
    Garrett has a daughter who will be in 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.
    “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 obtained from the Virginia Department of Education, that eight elementary schools in the county — Big Island, Body Camp, Boonsboro, Huddleston, Moneta, Montvale, Otter River and Thaxton — will have fewer students than that.
    “We are happy that the school won’t be closed,” said Tabitha King, who promised to keep up the fight next year.
    The compromise returns the school to its configuration of three years ago, when the school system moved second graders from the elementary school to Bedford Primary. That move had allowed the sixth grade classes, which were then meeting at Bedford Science and Technology Center, to move to BES.
    “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.
    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 the board needs to rethink the way it conducts itself. He said that the board could have had all the people who had fought against them on the Bedford Primary issue fighting for them. He also told  board members that Bedford people will push back if somebody tries to push them.
    “I wish they had reached this point prior to losing the $1.1. million they had,” added Tim Black.
    At the meeting’s end, School Board member Joy Wright called the budget discussions 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.