Mayor's comments halt budget talks

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By Tom Wilmoth

    Following its regular meeting Thursday night, the Bedford County School Board planned to talk more about the proposed 2011-12 budget. That never happened; comments made by Bedford Mayor Skip Tharp stopped any further discussion in its tracks.

    “I think we need to get more clarification,” stated District 4 board member Gary Hostutler.
    The clarification concerns comments made by Tharp about additional funds the school board would receive from the state  should   reversion  of the city to town status occur, a plan which he said is imminent. In addition, Tharp pointed to the current contract between the city and Bedford County for school services, which states that the board must give three years notice before terminating the terms of the contract, including having a school at College Street—specifically, Bedford Primary School, which is currently slated to be closed under the budget proposal being considered.
    “It’s coming sooner rather than later,” he said of reversion, noting that the school system would receive around $5 million a year in additional funding for the next 15 years because of changes to the county’s local composite index. The LCI determines the amount of state funding a school system receives.
    Tharp told the board to consider the “big picture.”
    He said changes to the school configuration at this time would be premature. “We’re going to hand you a check in excess of $5 million a year to educate our kids,” Tharp stated. “Let us work this reversion out. I am asking you individually and collectively to do that.”
    He also said the current contract between the school system and the city should be enforced. City attorney William Berry said after the meeting that Virginia law is clear that the actual wording of a contract is how it should be interpreted.
    This week, School Superintendent Dr. Douglas Schuch said the school system had not formally been a part of the reversion talks and did not have any specific knowledge of the funding numbers referred to by Mayor Tharp.
    While board members didn’t talk further about the budget Thursday, they did hear from several residents concerned about what will be included in it.
    Elizabeth Flynn told the board members she was concerned they were attempting to balance its budget at the expense of the children currently attending Bedford Primary School. “Keeping Bedford Primary School open is what’s most important,” she said.
    Tabitha King said many think the school board had not been forthcoming with the community. She added there wouldn’t be adequate time to implement the consolidation of Bedford Primary with Bedford Elementary.
    Dr. Schuch said he had been making himself available to groups at both Bedford Primary and Body Camp Elementary to address the potential closing of those schools. He said he has maintained that closing Body Camp was a possibility. Dr. Schuch added that closing both Bedford Primary and Body Camp Elementary is in the best interests of the education of the students at those schools.
    “I totally understand where those folks are coming from,” he said of those opposed to closing the schools. Dr. Schuch added that the proposal goes beyond any cost savings that could be realized.
    “The proposal is not based on the cost savings as much as trying to do the best we can in educating the students,” he said. “Because of the reductions we have a lot of challenges in smaller schools such as Body Camp.”
    He said by dividing the Body Camp students between Huddleston Elementary and Moneta Elementary, those schools would have a total of about 280 students each and would be able to provide more resources to educate the students. He said the same is true with making Bedford Elementary a K-5 school.
    “I feel like both of these things are in the best interests of our students,” he said.
    But speakers at Thursday’s meeting disagreed. Barbara Owen said the proposed cuts result in a “slicing and dicing of our children’s education.” She said a master plan needs to be presented by the school board as to the future of every child in the school system.
    Kara Sensenig disagreed with the research that bigger schools are better, stating that students in smaller schools do better in testing and have an overall better educational experience.
    District 2 board member Dave Vaden disagreed with the proposed closing of Body Camp Elementary and other proposed cuts.
    “I don’t agree with it all,” he said. “I would never vote for it.”
    Dina Linkenhoker, president of the Bedford county Education Association, said she had received concerns about the fact that teachers salaries had remained stagnant for several years and are behind other school systems, while the salaries in the school administration remain competitive with those in other localities.
    Others were more pointed in their comments. “Come election time, if you can’t get your house in order we’ll get ours in order,” stated Bedford County resident Ricky Wilkerson.
    School board chairwoman Debbie Hoback said the idea of closing any school “is just upsetting and disturbing.”
    “I’d like to find another way,” she said of balancing the budget.
    The school board will hold a budget work session this Thursday, March 24, at 4 p.m. at the school board office. The meeting will begin with a closed session to meet with Bedford County representatives about the status of the proposed reversion of the city to town status. The budget is still slated to be approved on March 31.