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Eighth graders won't be moved to Jefferson Forest and Liberty High School next year, but other major changes to save money and balance the school budget appear to be coming.
Among the possibilities gaining momentum from the Bedford County School Board:
• Closing Bedford Primary School, moving those students to Bedford Elementary and the sixth graders from that school to Bedford Middle School;
• Maintaining the current staffing standards, eliminating 23 positions;
• Eliminating B-Team sports at the middle schools; and
• Closing down school buildings during Christmas break.
Those four changes could save as much as $1.85 million of a possible $4.3 million shortfall. Though no decisions have been made, board members appeared to come to a consensus during a budget work session Thursday that those were plausible options. Nothing definite has been decided. More cuts, not included on that list, might also be considered.
As a worst case scenario, Chief Financial Officer Randy Hagler believes the school system could face a $4.34 million shortfall in funding from last year. “I’m hoping for better,” he told the board Thursday.
The board won’t know the outcome of that until the General Assembly finalizes its budget amendments. In general, the Senate’s version is more favorable to the school system. The 2011-2012 budget is projected right now to be just under $90 million.
“We’re making decisions that we don’t always agree with but that we know have to be made,” stated Board Chairwoman Debbie Hoback during last week’s meeting. “This is a time for us to look toward the future.”
Bedford Middle School Principal Rhetta Watkins presented the board with the scenario on how at least some of the Liberty zone’s sixth graders could be moved over to the school. A plan that could be done without having to add mobiles to the school—something the city of Bedford would have to approve since it owns the building—is to move the sixth graders over from Bedford Elementary, leaving the other sixth graders at their current feeder schools in Big Island, Thaxton and Montvale. By doing that, Bedford Primary School could be closed by moving those K-2 students over to BES. A decision on relocating preschool classes would still have to be made. Discussion also included redistricting some BES students to Thaxton to help with space issues. Total savings for that move is projected at $530,000.
City School Board member Mickey VanDerwerker said she was concerned that having some sixth graders at BMS while others were still at elementary schools would create a different learning experience for the students. Currently the Liberty zone is the only area where sixth graders are not at their respective middle schools.
At Forest Middle School, the entire sixth grade class currently meets in mobile classrooms at the school. Next year, the plan is to configure the classes so all students are inside the school for at least part of the day. FMS is projected to have 984 students next year, though it only has an 835 student capacity in the school building.
“We have to have some mobile classrooms,” stated FMS Principal Scott Simmons.
By keeping the current staffing standards, adopted by the school board last year, the school system will save more than $1.17 million, eliminating 23 positions. Several school board members stressed that even though they raised the number of students in a classroom last year, their student-to-teacher ratio standards are still lower than the suggested state standards.
The school board has already agreed to stagger the start times of the schools next year, eliminating the use of 20 buses and 20 driver positions. That is expected to save about $380,000. In all, School Superintendent Dr. Douglas Schuch said the school board is already eliminating more than 40 positions through that and by applying the current staffing standards.
During the work session, the school board also discussed a number of other cost-saving measures, without reaching any consensus. Those included:
• Increasing the staffing standards above last year’s changes;
• Going to a standard six-period day in all the high schools (saving $1.3 million);
• Utilizing more shared virtual learning opportunities;
• Using contracted services for custodial and landscaping services (saving $900,000); and
• Closing Body Camp Elementary School (saving $323,000).
District 2 Board member David Vaden said it’s important that when positions are cut, all of the school system’s positions are considered. “It shouldn’t be on the backs of just the teachers,” he said.
Though the school board decided against closing Body Camp Elementary last year, Hoback said it’s a proposal that is still on the table, though not supported by several of the board members.
VanDerwerker reminded the board members that they had already agreed to the proposal of closing Bedford Primary.
“And we may close more,” Hoback added.
In discussing contracting out the custodial services, Hagler stated that those current employees, even if they were hired by the company that would provide the service, would see a significant change to their benefits, from what they now receive. The school system currently has 85 custodial employees.
“I hate the thought of cutting people’s benefits,” stated District 5 Board member Julie Bennington.
The board also discussed what amount the school system should cover of increased health costs next year, setting that number at $600,000. Anything above that would be covered by the employees who participate in the health plan.
The board also discussed the possibility of providing a raise or bonus for employees. Dr. Schuch noted that most school systems in this area are planning to do something to help employees in the coming year.
The school board plans to ask the county supervisors to provide more funds than it did last year and plans to present the county with what additional cuts would have to be made, should it not receive that funding. The school board will be seeking anywhere from $1.5 million to $2.3 million in additional funds over last year’s $36.28 million allocation. The school board will share its budget issues with the supervisors during a work session on Feb. 22.