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Financial realities have the school system and board thinking outside the box

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During a work session earlier this month, members of the Bedford County School Board, and the administration, showed some positive signs of thinking "outside of the box."

As has been said previously, funding is tight and isn't likely to change anytime soon. The Bedford County Board of Supervisors have set a debt limit for new school capital projects at $8 million, and that isn't likely to change significantly.

What that means, if the school system is going to address some of the population issues it faces, is being able to take a look at alternative ways to handle problems. The school board members' ability to at least consider this came out during the all-day work session the board held at the Welcome Center Dec. 13.

One such proposal came from Board member Debbie Hoback.

Hoback floated one idea to help in addressing the middle school problem the school system is facing. Currently the school system's capital improvement plan includes construction of a new middle school to help with overcrowding problems. Being able to actually do that, however, seems highly unlikely. Any new construction of that magnitude would send the debt limit soaring far beyond the county's $8 million annual figure ? which currently is maxed out with the Jefferson Forest High School $38 million construction and renovation project, along with the new gymnasium construction project underway at Staunton River High School.

The middle school issue has several different problems. In the Liberty zone, sixth graders are currently scattered throughout a variety of locations. Instead of attending middle school, as they do in the other two zones, the sixth graders remain at elementary school and then feed into Bedford Middle School in seventh grade. In the case of the city sixth graders, they are currently meeting at the Bedford Science and Technology Center because of space issues.

That issue will likely be addressed by moving second graders from Bedford Elementary to Bedford Primary, freeing up space for the sixth grade class to move to the elementary school. But another proposal ? an example of thinking outside the box ? was Hoback's proposal to move the eighth grade class to Liberty High School and utilize Bedford Middle School for sixth and seventh graders.

LHS used to have many more students than its current 1,000 student population. Of course, class size standards have changed, but it still seems there should be some space available for such a move ? at least in theory. And if such a course included the construction of a new gymnasium, space issues could be addressed through such a project. Other factors would also weigh in, such as scraping block scheduling for a daily class period schedule.

Change isn't always welcome, but it's sometimes needed.

And that was just one scenario discussed by the school board members and administration officials. Another scenario included constructing a new middle school on the site of what is now Bedford Primary, since the land is available. And there was discussion about the future of Stewartsville Elementary in the Staunton River zone, to help with middle school growth. In the Forest zone, the middle school issue included thoughts about adding additional classroom space at FMS to move the sixth graders out of mobile units and back into regular classrooms.

The school board is considering hiring a consultant to study the current school usage and future needs to help evaluate various proposals and options. If such a study is to be completed it must be done so with "out-of-the-box" thinking, instead of the traditional "let's build new" mentality.

The county is in transition. For the first time in some time, the school population is in decline. But that's not necessarily true in every zone. The Forest zone seems slated to continue growing; the SR zone is still in question.

A study which takes all of such factors into consideration ? including a true look at the financial funding realities ? would be money well spent. Otherwise, it's just taxpayers money down the drain.