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Body Camp Elementary to close after one more year

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By Tom Wilmoth

They'll do their best to make it a year to remember.

Those were the first thoughts from staff and parents of students from Body Camp Elementary who will have one more year at the school before it closes.

Thursday night, at a special called meeting, the Bedford County School Board voted 4-3 to close Body Camp Elementary at the end of the upcoming 2014-2015 school year. The school board also directed school staff to begin looking at two schools in the Liberty zone—Thaxton Elementary and Bedford Primary School—to study which of those might need to be closed.

 

Make it the best year ever

Body Camp Principal Scott Graham said it is difficult to know he won't be able to see his first kindergarten class make it through the fifth grade at the school. “We want to stay positive,” he said, . “We want to have the best year we've ever had at Body Camp.”

Planning for the new school year has already begun, Graham said, adding that it was a “blessing” to at least have one more year with the students at the school.

Moneta Principal Melanie Simmons called Thursday's decision “bitter sweet.”

“The communities are very close,” she said. “We know each other well.”

And while she is happy to have Moneta remaining open, she understands the heartache of those from Body Camp. She said it would be important to move forward and see how the two schools can work together in preparing for the transition. A number of the students from Body Camp will likely be redistricted to Moneta Elementary.

Simmons was sitting with a number of the school's staff when the vote was taken. “They could very much empathize with how much their sister community was hurting,” she said. “Your heart just goes out, especially to the kids.”

She expected it to be difficult for parents to go home and have to tell their children about the school closing.

Simmons anticipated the two schools trying to do some events together, especially as PTAs. “This will definitely be a year of transition,” she said. “We will be welcoming the Bulldogs in as Bees.”

Don Ferguson, who will serve as PTA president this upcoming school year at Body Camp, said it was unfortunate the school board chose to close “a perfectly functioning school,” over Moneta Elementary which was in need of repairs costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. “Financially it's irresponsible,” he said.

But, Ferguson added, the goal will be to have fun the next year. “That's the only thing we can do,” he said. “We need to do all we can do to make it the best year Body Camp has ever had.”

 

Responding to the efficiency review

The vote comes after several weeks of discussions, following the release of the state-mandated efficiency review of the school system. That report gave the school system more than 100 recommendations to consider implementing to run a more efficient school system, including closing two elementary schools.

Voting to close Body Camp in June 2015 were Board Chairman Gary Hostutler, Vice Chairman Julie Bennington, District 1 member Richard Downey and District 3 member Dr. John Hicks Jr. Voting against the school closing was District 7 member Kevin Willis, District 2 member Jason Johnson and District 6 member Kelly Harmony.

 

Comparing the schools

Hostutler started off Thursday's meeting with a list of positives and negatives of both Body Camp and Moneta elementary schools, the two schools in the Staunton River attendance zone that were being considered for closure. He noted the fact that public water could become available to Moneta as the Bedford Regional Water Authority extends lines up Va. 122 and that Moneta had a larger cafeteria and canopies on the outside of the school. He noted Body Camp had one-level access and had newer floor tile, as well as a more favorable piece of land.

Hostuler stated that zone transfers were an issue with 80 students from Body Camp, who are in that district, attending other county schools with only nine transferring in, while Moneta Elementary had 54 zone transfers this past year into its school with only 27 students in that district going to another school.

He also said smaller schools cost the school system $8,400 to educate while the larger schools cut that cost to $6,000 per student.

Hostutler said long-term maintenance needs at Body Camp Elementary are expected to cost $3.1 million while those needs would be $1.9 million at Moneta Elementary.

 

Repairing the septic system

The most glaring need, however, was the septic system at Moneta Elementary and in the first vote of the night the board voted 5-2 to repair that system. Hostutler said the system is expected to take two months to fix, once contracts are awarded and permits secured – meaning it won't be ready for the opening of the upcoming school year. He added, however, that the system should be able to operate on its temporary fix, implemented at the end of this past school year, until the septic system is fixed.

Hostutler added that people in the General Assembly are watching what the board does. He said he wasn't willing to put $84 million at risk—the extra money the county is slated to get from the state over the next 14 years as a result of Bedford's reversion to a town. If the county would lose that money, he said cuts to the school system would become severe.

Hostutler said by delaying the school closure for a year, the details will be able to be hashed out thoughtfully. “We'll be taking our time to make sure we're doing this right,” he said.

A vote to delay a decision on closing a school failed on a 2-5 vote, with only Johnson and Willis supporting it.

A vote to close Moneta Elementary, made on a motion by Willis, failed 1-6, with only Willis supporting it and a motion to close Body Camp this upcoming school year failed to get a second.

That's when the motion to close Body Camp Elementary as of June 30, 2015, was made.

Bennington supported closing Body Camp, noting that in the long term the maintenance costs there were expected to eclipse those of Moneta Elementary.

 

Safety before expediency

Johnson, whose district both schools are in, has argued that neither school should be closed until a safety study of Thaxton Elementary is conducted. The efficiency study noted that school's proximity to railroad tracks.

He said smaller schools allow principals and staff to know each student, and family, by name. Of Body Camp, Johnson noted, “I don't see poverty, I see pioneers.”

“They are leading the way in the county in terms of personalized learning,” Johnson said of the school. “Body Camp is doing a lot of things well.”

He said a variety of factors needed to be considered before deciding to close any school. “There are too many unanswered questions right now,” he said. “I don't want to see us close two good schools. Safety should come before expediency.”

Johnson argued that the school in Body Camp is the center of that community. “To close that school would be go gut the heart and soul of a community, that only has a school to rely on,” he said prior to the vote.

Dr. Hicks, in explaining his thoughts, said Moneta Elementary appeared to be the most viable of the two southside schools. He said it wasn't realistic for that attendance zone to continue to operate with 70 percent capacity in its elementary schools. “I'm in favor of consolidation,” he said.

Willis said both Moneta and Body Camp elementary schools do an excellent job of educating county students. “That won't change,” he said if a school closes.

He favored following the school efficiency study's recommendation to close Moneta Elementary.

Harmony urged the board to be careful of closing a school. “These are people's lives,” she said of what such a decision would mean. She said, potentially, closing a school could hurt the school system more in the end if families decide to homeschool students or send them to private schools. “If this happens we'll be in a much worse situation than we are right now.”

She added that a vote to close a community school “could put the nail in the coffin” of public education in the county.”

Downey said it was important to remember that a lot of spending needs have been deferred. “I don't see how we can continue down this road,” he said. “I think we need to make a decision.”

He said the decision wasn't easy and he took no joy or pride in the vote. “Some people are going to be very disappointed; some people are going to be relieved.”

 

Going home disappointed

At the end of the evening, it was the supporters of Body Camp Elementary who went home disappointed.

Johnson said the community support from both Moneta and Body Camp the past several weeks showed why “southside is the best place in Bedford County to call home.”

He said he was disappointed but not surprised by the outcome of the votes Thursday.

“I am relieved we have the extra year,” he said. “At the end of the day, we're all Golden Eagles and I hope we can all soar together.”

School Superintendent Dr. Douglas Schuch said the 14 months to facilitate the transition of closing Body Camp Elementary will help make it as smooth a process as possible. “My heart goes out to the whole Body Camp community,” he said.