New start times for students

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Change will save more than $350,000

By John Barnhart

Bedford County students will have new start times for their school day next year.

    The Bedford County School Board, on a 5-3 vote at its regular meeting Thursday night, adopted a measure that will reduce school bus costs by $360,000 next year. The plan calls for school starting times to be staggered with elementary schools starting at 7:55 a.m. and the high schools and middle schools starting an hour later. This will allow the school division to use fewer buses to transport students to and from school.
    The meeting began with 10 parents speaking to the school board during a citizen comment period, addressing a number of budget issues.
    “I urge everyone to contact the board of supervisors and let your voice be heard,” said Megan Griffith, who wants the county to provide more local money for public schools.
    Others were concerned by a proposal to move eighth graders from Forest Middle School to  Jefferson Forest High School. The chief concern was the potential for eighth graders to be bullied by the older teens and crowding at Jefferson Forest High School.
    Barbara Owen said that she recalls a time when eighth graders were at Liberty High School. She said that there was dating between senior boys and eighth grade girls.
    “Eighth graders do not belong in the high school,” said Owen.
    Still others were concerned about the staggered school start times. Jeff Cox and Tommy Mason said that they were concerned about the early start for elementary school students.
    “I urge you all to reconsider the start times,” Mason said.
    As the board got down to business, discussing staggering the school starting times, District 3 school board member Brad Whorley suggested including it in the discussion of the rest of the budget for next year.
    Dr. Douglas Schuch, superintendent of schools, explained that this action was brought to the board for separate early action so that parents would have more time to adapt to it.
    Board Chairwoman Debbie Hoback wondered if they could combine school bus runs.
    Randy Hagler, chief financial officer, replied that they had looked at other possibilities.
    “This one was the greatest savings,” he said.
    Dr. Schuch said that the decision to start elementary schools earlier than the high schools was brought to the board after discussions with school principals. They recommended this arrangement. Dr. Mac Duis, director of instruction, said that he has spoken with the assistant superintendent of schools in Botetourt County, who told him that this arrangement provides less down time for older students between school and extracurricular activities. Dr. Duis also said that studies of adolescent sleep patterns support having high school and middle school students start later.
    Not all school board members were convinced.
    “I would like to see it flipped,” said Whorley, who favored starting high school earlier. Whorley was one of the school board members to vote against the measure.
    “No matter what we come up with, it’s going to be hard,” commented District 4 school board member Gary Hostutler, who also voted in opposition.
    Hostutler and Whorley, along with District 2 school board member David Vaden, said that they didn’t oppose the idea of staggering the school start times to reduce the number of school buses and drivers needed, they just preferred an option of starting the high school day earlier.
    “We have to do this,” Hostutler said.
    School board members Mickey VanDerwerker, Shirley McCabe, Hoback, Julie Bennington and Joy Wright voted in favor of the measure to start elementary school first. McCabe said that a lot of the elementary school children are already getting to school early and the schools have to put them in the gym for an hour. Hagler told the school board that the earliest bus pick-up for elementary school children is currently at 6:50 a.m. and that starting elementary schools first won’t back this up more than five minutes.
    In other action Thursday:
    • The school board approved a contract with Verizon for the communication facility located at Staunton River High School. Verizon will pay an annual fee of $1,000 to use the facility, rising to $1,300 by 2026.
    • The school board also voted to not accept any current fuel bids. Hagler had recommended against accepting any of the current bids stating that they would add $460,000 to the school division’s transportation costs. Hagler said that the school division does not fill its storage tanks for the year until September and does not want to lock in at the current price only to see the price drop by then. He added that some suppliers, that submitted bids, were curious why the school division was seeking bids for fuel now.
    There is a risk, however. Hagler said that if fuel ends up costing more than they have budgeted, they could end up having to take money from other areas to pay for it.
    • Some future meetings will have security provided by a sheriff’s deputy. Sara Staton, director of special services, told the school board that this could be provided, at no extra cost by utilizing school resource officers. The school board will request a deputy on nights that they expect a large crowd, or other times that they feel a deputy will be needed.
    • The school board expects a difficult time as they work on the budget for the next school year.
    “We have some tough decisions to make and not all of them will be popular,” commented Wright.
    Hostutler noted that the school budget was $107 million two years ago. This year the school system is anticipating it to be less than $90 million.
    “We are going to impact education, no doubt about it,” Hostutler said. “We’re trying to do the least damage.”
    Hostutler also noted that the General Assembly is making matters worse. He said that state legislators have added a mandate for more physical education.
    “Their help is to cut the dollars and add mandates,” he said.