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Major changes considered by school board

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By Tom Wilmoth

It’s all on the table.

    That’s the comment Bedford County School Board chairwoman Debbie Hoback said of the potential actions the board might have to take to make up for as much as $5.8 million in lost school funding and additional spending mandates from the state and federal government next year.
    Possible actions being considered include staggering the start times of elementary and secondary schools in order to double up routes run by some buses; moving eighth graders from Forest and Bedford middle schools to the high schools; and closing Bedford Primary School, moving those students to Bedford Elementary School.
    At a work session last Thursday, school board members got their first look at just what they might be facing in coming up with next year’s budget for the school system. And the potential cuts could be significant.
    “We’re going to try and find as many areas as we can to get leaner on,” Hoback said of cutting the budget. “The money has to come from somewhere. We’re going to have to look to our local government to help us out a lot this year.
    “We don’t have a choice, we’ve got to pay the bills,” she added.
    The school system could lose up to $2.7 million in state funding from last year, depending on what the General Assembly does with proposals made by Gov. Bob McDonnell to amend last year’s budget. With the loss of federal stimulus funds, the school system also stands to lose $1.7 million in federal funding next year. In addition, the school system could face a state-mandated $1.4 million increase in spending because of proposed rate changes to the employer’s   contribution   to   the  Virginia Retirement System.
    In all, a worst-case scenario for the 2011-2012 budget could mean close to $6 million in fewer dollars to work with next year.
    Randy Hagler, chief financial officer for the school system, presented the board with some possible cost-saving measures.
    By adjusting school start times next year — elementary schools starting at about 7:55 a.m., middle and high schools at 8:55 a.m.—the school system could double up on some bus routes, eliminating 20 bus driver positions from the current fleet, saving about $380,000.
    The board will consider this proposal at its meeting this Thursday. School Superintendent Dr. Douglas Schuch said the sooner parents and schools know about the change, if it is to be implemented, the more time they will have to make adjustments to their own schedules.
    The school system also might work with the YMCA to see if it would be willing to expand its after-school programs to additional schools in the county.
    By applying the current staffing standards, adopted last year by the board, another $1.1 million could be saved by eliminating close to 23 positions because of declining school enrollment.
    In addition, the school system could eliminate 14 of the mobile classrooms it currently leases saving another $154,000.
    The board also discussed making changes to its grade-level configurations in the Forest and Liberty zones by moving the eighth graders to the high schools, freeing up space at the middles schools.
    In the Forest zone, this would mean moving all of the eighth graders from Forest Middle School to Jefferson Forest High School, allowing the sixth graders, which now have classes in mobile units at the school, to move into the school building. This would push the enrollment at JF to more than 1,660 students, slightly above what the school was designed to accommodate. Projected savings from this move is close to $200,000.
    Forest Middle School is projected to have 977 sixth through eighth graders at the school next year without reconfiguration; its capacity in the actual building is 835.
    Problems that would be created by this change, if implemented, would include crowded lunch periods, teachers would not have classrooms for planning times, special education classroom space would be affected and there would be increased problems to handling of standardized testing of students.
    JF Principal Tony Francis said that, if the change occurs, all of the school's classroom space would be utilized 100 percent of the time. “No matter how you do that, there would be teachers (using) carts,” he said.
    Francis said each of the three lunch periods would have to accommodate more than 500 students. He said the eighth graders would be integrated into the high school, with little segregation possible.
    In the Liberty zone, eighth graders at Bedford Middle School would be moved to Liberty High School, increasing the membership there close to 1,150 students. That move would allow sixth graders at the feeder elementary schools to move into the middle school.
    In addition, the proposed change would close Bedford Primary School, moving the K-2 students over to Bedford Elementary School which, with the loss of sixth graders, would have a net projected enrollment of 628 students. Total cost savings of that proposal would be $360,000.
    Problems discussed about the change at Liberty included creating a challenge of space for physical education, teachers losing classrooms for their planning periods, special education classroom space needs, storage space issues and the need for longer lunch periods.
    B-team sports could also be affected in both zones. Potential changes discussed included eliminating B-team sports altogether, allowing eighth graders to participate in the JV program, or, if not eliminated, having to transport the eighth graders back to the middle school for practices.
    Changes at Bedford Elementary School to be considered included how the change could affect existing federal grants, as well as lunch, library and storage space issues.
    “Six hundred and twenty-eight students is a lot of students for that building,” stated Dr. Mac Duis, director of instruction. “It’s going to be a tight fit.”
    Hoback said it’s important for the school board to decide soon if it plans to implement any reconfiguration in the school zones.
    District 4 school board member Gary Hostutler said it would be demeaning for a teacher to have to use a cart, moving to a different classroom six times a day. “How do you ever get established?” he said.
    He said that there isn’t extra capacity at the schools cited in the reconfiguration plans.
    “There are a lot of issues that could really blow up on us,” he said if those plans are implemented.
    District 6 board member Shirley McCabe suggested the board might have to look at a further increase in class sizes.
    District 2 board member Dave Vaden urged the board to consider making a policy to curb the use of student transfer waivers between school zones. About 10 percent of the students in the school system attend schools other than the one they are zoned to attend. “I think we’ve allowed that policy to get out of hand,” Vaden said.
    The school board will hold another work session on the budget on Feb. 10 with the goal of coming up with a request to present to the county of its budget needs for next year.