Boards discuss school options

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By Tom Wilmoth

    Within 60 days, the Bedford County School Board hopes to have a clear direction from the County Board of Supervisors as to how much the board will be willing to ante up to build a new secondary school in the Liberty Zone.
    Whether that school will be a middle school, high school or some hybrid between the two remains to be seen—and it all hinges on how much money the supervisors will be willing to borrow for the construction project.
    The two boards met together last Thursday to look at potential options for the project and, for the most part, the supervisors kept their thoughts to themselves about what was being presented. School Board chairman Gary Hostutler, though stuck in Atlanta because of the bad weather there last week, spoke to the two boards via a phone hookup and went over three options for the new school.
    The reversion agreement, in which the former city of Bedford reverted to a town, called for the county to build a new middle school in the Liberty Zone to replace Bedford Middle School. The school board has been looking at the issue for months and officially purchased about 50 acres next to Liberty High School for the building project. Just what type of school will be built has been  a   major   point   of discussion by the board, school administration and community for months.
    The options include building a new middle school (with a  preliminary cost of $35 million to $37 million); building a new middle school that would be designed to later become a high school (with an estimated cost of $38 million to $40 million); or building a new high school and reconfiguring Liberty High School into a middle school (at an estimated cost of $55 million to $60 million). Hostutler presented both pros and cons for each option as well as a number of debt service options for the projects.
    “We want to make sure we are all on the same page,” Hostutler told the board. “We don’t want to waste our time and money to even consider the high school option if you won’t support it.”
    The high school option is one which has been gaining support from some community members.
    Hostutler said if the option is chosen to construct a middle school that would eventually become a high school, the board should consider some upgrades which the high school could utilize immediately, such as construction of a competition gymnasium, something the other two high schools now have, but Liberty doesn’t. Hostutler said that option could provide a good long-term solution down the line for the county, because LHS has needs that aren’t going to go away.
    Hostutler said Liberty High School is 50 years old and its campus construction model is not used anymore. “It’s not ideal,” he said. The school needs new science classrooms as well as an updated auditorium. “It can stir economic development,” he said of building a new high school right away. “That could help stop some of the declining enrollment in the Liberty Zone.”
    Hostutler said the school board realizes that, ultimately, the decision “comes down to costs.”
    That fact is why he said the school board wanted to be up front with the options and have a discussion between the two boards on them.
    “This is going to be a showplace for the Liberty Zone for maybe 75 years,” he added of whatever new school is built.
    He said once the supervisors decide on a construction cost they will support, “we’ll figure out a way to make it work.”
    During the meeting, District 7 school board member Kevin Willis also asked the supervisors for clarification on how the project will be funded—whether the new money the school board is receiving from the state as part of the reversion process (about $6 million extra a year, slated for 15 years) is to be solely used for that project or whether some of those funds can be funneled into the school system’s operating budget.
    Willis added that the Liberty Zone continues to ask, when it comes to school improvements, “When will it be our turn?”
    District 5 supervisor Steve Arrington, one of the few supervisors to comment on the issue, stated the expectation is that at least some of those funds from reversion are expected to be used toward the debt service incurred on the new school. “We know what your challenges are,” Arrington said. “And we know what our challenges are, too.”
    Hostutler told the board that whether reversion had taken place or not, a new middle school needed to be built. “This project would be in front of us regardless of reversion,” he said.
    Hostutler added that the extra funds from the state got spent fairly quickly, but not frivolously in the current year’s budget. “Our per student spending is one of the lowest in the state,” he said. “We continue to be in a challenging (economic) situation.”
    The goal is to have the new school built and ready to go for the 2016-2017 school year.
    The one action the supervisors did take as a result of last Thursday’s meeting was to allow the school board to draw down funds from the leftover money from the Jefferson Forest High School renovation and construction project to hire M. B. Khan Construction to begin the first phase of design and planning for the education specifications for the school. That firm will serve as a management team to oversee the project, once construction begins.
    District 1 school board member Richard Downey said the Liberty High School facility is not up to par with the county’s other two high schools. He added that while there needs to be a cost-benefit discussion, “I’m not sure that cost has to be the bottom line answer to this.”
    During the meeting Hostutler also urged the supervisors to consider funding expansion projects at Bedford Elementary School and Forest Middle School. By expanding BES, he said Bedford Primary School could be closed, and the two schools consolidated. He said Forest Middle has been overcrowded almost from its opening and that currently most sixth graders spend the majority of their day in mobile classrooms set up next to the school.
    “We feel we can run parallel projects,” he said of the construction needs.
    The supervisors are expected to discuss the school construction issue at an upcoming budget work session and send its recommendation back to the school board within 60 days.