City to sue county school board for breach of contract

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By John Barnhart

The City of Bedford voted unanimously, at a Wednesday night meeting, to sue the Bedford County School Board for breach of contract.

The meeting, which convened in council chambers at 5:30 p.m. was a continuation of a previous meeting. Assistant City Manager Bart Warner said that this time was set because all City Council members wanted to be there. After opening, city council resumed their closed session, then joined the city school board in a closed session.

After they emerged, City Council unanimously adopted a resolution authorizing the city attorney to prepare a lawsuit and hire any additional legal help that he may need.

The resolution cites the city's contract with the county for school services that the two local governments signed on June 28, 1998. In the agreement, the city agreed to renovate or construct certain school facilities and make them available to the county school board. The county school board agreed to "operate schools at the facility on College Street, the new facility on Burks Hill Road, the middle school, and Liberty High School." The "facility on College Street" is Bedford Primary School.

The resolution notes that this school contract still remains in effect and has not been ammended to allow the closing of any of these schools that the county school board had agreed to operate. In spite of that, the county school board has voted to close Bedford Primary School at the conclusion of the current school year, an action the City Council finds constitutes a breach of the school contract.

In passing the resolution, City Council requested that the county school board rescind its action to close Bedford Primary School and authorized the city attorney to file a lawsuit to declare the county school board's decision to close Bedford Primary to be a breach of the school contract.

A copy of this resolution has been forwarded by the city manager to the chairman of the county school board.

Bedford's city school board, with five members present, also unanimously adopted an identical resolution. Mickey VanDerwerker, who also serves as the city's representative on the county school board, was one of the five present.

"This is a suit against the county school board," said Bedford Mayor Skip Tharp, after the meeting.

"It seems pretty clear cut," Tharp said of the contract, noting that the contract states that either party must give three years notice of an intent to void the contract.

"They have to give us three years notice," he said.

Tharp believes that this could have all been avoided.

"I think if Dr. Schuch had initiated a conversation with the community and built support from the ground up instead of the top down, he would have done better," Tharp said.

"We're not suing the county," Tharp said. He had noted that the county's board of supervisors had already expressed their interest in keeping the schools opened and said he would like to see the county join the city and city school board as a party to the lawsuit.

Will this affect reversion?

Tharp said that it has "soured the reversion soup a bit" and slowed things down, but it won't stop it. He considers the reversion to be a completely separate issue.

"This is proof the City Council feels the same about the community schools as the parents do," commented Wanda Gardner.

Gardner believes that City Council made the right decision. She also believes that it all could have been avoided.

"If something happened to plan this [the Bedford Primary closure] you wouldn't have seen the outcry we've had."

"I think it's good to keep the schools open and I think the schools should stay open," said her husband, David Gardner. "But I think it's bad for the tax payers and the citizens of this county that it had to come to this."