It’s time to build

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City of Bedford School Board member Mickey VanDerwerker asked the most relevant question during last Thursday’s Bedford County School Board meeting to discuss a long-range facilities plan for the school system: “What are we going to do about the gymnasium at Bedford Primary now?”

    But instead of answers, there are still only questions. And the sad news is the students at Bedford Primary are the ones suffering. It’s time for the county and school board to stop putting a decision off and to take steps to solve this problem.

    It was a year ago this month that parents approached the school board asking for a gymnasium to be built at the school. This wasn’t a new request, but one that had been ignored over the years. This time, however, it appeared these patrons of the school system had the board’s ear. During budget discussions that project was set up by the school board as a top priority and two proposals through the Public-Private Education Facilities and Infrastructure Act were submitted. All that was left was to select a contractor.

    At least, so it seemed.

    Late last spring those plans were delayed when a working committee made up of the school board and board of supervisors decided that a long-range plan for the school system’s facilities needed to be addressed before any construction project was undertaken. Or at least that particular construction project. That committee went ahead and signed off on the renovation of the Staunton River High School administrative office space that took place over the summer.

    But the gym at Bedford Primary was a different story. It would have to wait until the plan was completed. The question quickly became: “Why would we want to put a gym there if some day the school system is no longer going to use that facility as a school?”

    Now the school board has a draft plan and it will be presented to the supervisors at a meeting of the two boards in early December. The draft plan calls for the construction of a new middle school in the Liberty zone ($29.8 million) as well as the expansion of Bedford Elementary School ($4.8 million) to accommodate the students (K-2) who now attend Bedford Primary. In addition, the plan calls for renovations and an expansion of Forest Middle School ($14.2 million). That’s almost a $50 million plan and would mean roughly $5 million in additional annual debt service over what the school system is currently carrying ($7.8 million in 2010). Completion of that plan would put the school system far beyond the level the county has been comfortable granting the school system up to this point. In fact, that statement would remain true a decade from now as the debt is slowly paid down.

    To be fair to the students at Bedford Primary, the county supervisors must now make a decision. If they agree with the school board’s long-range goals, they must make the decision to move forward — and quickly — at least with the renovations to Bedford Elementary. That means working with the city, which currently owns the school, on that project. That work would take about a year to complete and would provide the students who attend Bedford Primary with a gymnasium sooner rather than later. If, however, the county is reluctant to move forward with that construction at BES, it should go ahead and build a new gymnasium at Bedford Primary. That cost, estimated at about $1 million, is relatively modest, and even if some day the school is converted to a different use, that space could still be utilized.