Efficiency study released

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By Tom Wilmoth

    If Bedford County Public Schools wants to operate efficiently, two of its elementary schools should be closed, according to a state-mandated efficiency study released Thursday night.
    The study recommended closing both Moneta Elementary School and Bedford Primary School in an effort to save $8 million over the next five years.
    Closing the two schools was one of 101 recommendations included in the study. The school system will be expected by the state,  over   the  next two years, to implement a majority of those recommendations in order to continue receiving an extra $6 million in state funding for schools that has been promised as part of the former city of Bedford’s reversion to town status last year. Under that agreement the county is able to use, for 15 years, the former city’s more favorable local composite index, the formula used to determine the state’s funding for the school system.
    Overall, the study’s recommendations amounted to $11.4 million in cost savings while suggesting $5.4 million of additional costs.
    A major goal of the study, according to Tatia Prieto, president of Prismatic Services Inc. which conducted the study, is to identify opportunities to reduce costs in non-instructional areas so those funds can be redirected back into the classroom.

School closings
    While only one of the 101 total recommendations included in the study, the closing of schools recommendation was the one likely to bring the most reaction.
    “It’s a much more emotional issue for the adults than it is for the children,” Prieto stated about closing schools. She said school divisions, after taking that step, often say that they wish they had closed schools earlier and that “once we got used to it, it was fine.”
    But those reactions aren’t likely to be felt immediately by the communities affected.
    “We’ll take some time to work through this,” School Board Chairman Gary Hostutler told those who attended the meeting held at Bedford Elementary School. “We know some of these are going to be difficult decisions.”
    But looking at the school closing issue may need to come sooner, rather than later.
    Moneta Elementary School is finishing out its school year with two of its three drainage fields,  part of its septic system, having failed. The third drainage field is also having problems and the school maintenance staff is trying to keep it running one more week to get it through the end of the school year. Fixing those systems is estimated to cost at least $400,000, a cost the school board will have to consider in light of the study’s recommendation to close the school.
    District 2 Board Member Jason Johnson said he was surprised that Moneta Elementary was one of the schools recommended for closing. Nevertheless, Johnson, who attended Moneta Elementary and whose mother was part of the last graduating class of it when Moneta High School existed, said it is an issue the board will have to consider soon because of the maintenance issues at the school.
    Johnson said he plans to talk to the district’s residents to hear how they feel about the recommendation. He attended a meeting Sunday held at the school to do just that.
    Hostutler, who has supported closing some of the smaller elementary schools in the past, realizes that school closings are difficult for the smaller communities affected. “We can’t continue to operate 21 schools when you have declining enrollment,” he said. “It’s not good for education.
    But closing Moneta Elementary this year would be difficult to implement, he said, given that school will be opening in mid-August, just three months from now.
    Bedford Primary School has been on the board’s closing list before. The board, several years ago, had supported closing that school but, following community reaction to the recommendation, decided not to take that action.
    District 7 School Board Member Kevin Willis said he was disappointed that school closings were having to be considered, once again. But, he said, budget constraints are “going to require us to make tough decisions.”
    He said the board will have to consider, if schools are closed, where those students will be attending school and is there adequate facility space to accommodate those students. “It’s just hard,” he said of closing schools.
    As for the issue with Moneta Elementary, and the cost of fixing the drainage system, he said a decision will have to be made soon. “It may be the perfect storm,” he said of the situation there.
The study
    John Ringer, the associate director of the Virginia Department of Planning and Budget, said Bedford County’s study was the 41st review done. “We’ve kind of worked out the kinks in the process,” he said.
    He said typically school systems will implement more than 90 percent of the recommendations included in a study.
    The full report is available for review on the Department of Education’s website and Bedford County Public School’s website.
     Prieto said it’s important for the review to include both recommendations and commendations, with the commendations being passed on as best-practices to other school divisions. She said multiple drafts of the study were utilized as the report was finalized.
    “This is a division in transition,” she said.
     The report included the need to add some positions to Central Office staff, as well as to other departments. “It’s time to add a few positions back,”  Prieto said, including the development of a chief operations officer and a math supervisor position.
    The report stressed the need for a continued move to personalized learning, and commended the school system for the steps that have already been made in this direction.
    “It is the future of education,”  Prieto said.
    In addition to the suggested school closings,  Prieto said there needs to be a regular maintenance plan of the school system’s other buildings. “Buildings need attention too,” she said.
    The report commended the school system for going to staggered start times between the elementary and secondary levels, and recommended looking at utilizing some staggered start times between elementary schools as well.
     Prieto said the goal is to not implement all of the recommendations at once, but rather to put a plan together for systematic implementation. “You as a school board need to decide what your priorities are,” she said. “We highly recommend you take it slowly.”
    But the school system will be reviewed at six months, one year and two years to see how the implementation process is going.
    “There are a lot of good things going on in our schools,” Hostutler said at the end of the meeting. “But we’re always looking for improvement. We look forward to implementing many of the recommendations.”
Dr.. Schuch responds
    Superintendent Dr. Douglas Schuch said he is pleased that the school system had the study done. “I was really pleased with the depth of the report,” he said.
    He said some of the steps the school system have already taken were validated, such as the staggered start times. “At the time, there were some in the community who didn’t care for it,” Dr. Schuch said.
    He said the recommendation to close Moneta Elementary, and the problem with the septic system there, were coincidental, because most of the fact-finding utilized in the study was finished before the problem became known.
    With the budget process for next year close to being finished, he said implementing recommendations as part of this budget cycle would be difficult. He said closing a school for the upcoming year would be challenging, but believes the school board will have to at least consider that option.”The failure of the drain field (at Moneta Elementary) effectively could keep us out of that school in the near future,” he said.
    He said any implementation of the recommendations will be voluntary, since the school system paid for the study at a cost of $108,000.
    But Dr. Schuch said he believes the General Assembly will pay close attention to what steps the school system does take since the Senate budget proposal had included having the study done as a requirement to receive the additional state funds through the more favorable LCI. “They’re going to be very interested,” he said.