Parents galvanize response

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By Tom Wilmoth

    Moneta area residents, shocked by the possibility that Moneta Elementary might be closed—sooner rather than later—gathered Sunday at the school to begin plotting their strategy to try and save the community’s school.
    That included signing a petition and giving out information to gather at next week’s Bedford County School Board meeting.
    “We are Moneta,” Jessica Chattin stated about the wording of the petition. "We support Moneta Elementary School. We  believe  it  is a  necessary and integral part of our community.”
    And their plea: “Please keep it open!”
    Chattin, secretary of the school’s Parent Teacher Association, said 80 to 100 people attended Sunday’s meeting. A second gathering will be held this Sunday at 3 p.m. at the school. By that time petitions will have been spread throughout the community at area businesses, seeking the community’s support to not have the school closed.
    Though most residents weren’t at last Thursday’s meeting to reveal the results of the state-mandated school efficiency study, word of the study’s recommendation to close Moneta Elementary quickly spread throughout the community.
    “We actually thought there were a couple of other schools that would have been recommended,” Chattin said. “It was definitely a shock. It was a big shock.”
    Chattin said the main concern is to stay positive and the second is to do what can be done as a community to make sure the school doesn’t close. She said the Moneta community is a family. “That is what our community has shown to be over the past couple of days.”
    The group is also soliciting donations to help deal with the septic system’s drain field failures at the school. Two of the school’s three drain fields have failed and fixing that problem could cost in excess of $400,000. With that bill hanging over its head, the school board will have to determine whether it is worth spending that money to keep the school open, especially if the school might be closed in a year. The board could decide—though it would be difficult to accomplish by the start of the 2014-2015 school year in August—to close the school immediately.
    “Anything that the community can do to come together would be very beneficial,” Chattin said. “The septic problem needs to be fixed.”
    The school board could also look for a temporary fix.
    “The septic issues could be the saving grace for the school or could be the school’s worst enemy,” Chattin said.
    She said the school is important to the community and provides a number of services for families. Some slots in the school’s preschool program have also been threatened to be cut from the budget because of state funding cuts.
    Chattin said families drive from other communities to place their children at Moneta Elementary. Their family moved from the Goodview area to Moneta so their children could attend the school.
    She said the main goal would be to have no other schools closed. Bedford Primary School was also recommended to be closed in the study. And other schools including Body Camp Elementary and Thaxton Elementary are also looked at in the study.
    “We’re not trying to go against each other,” she said of possible school closings.
    Chattin said Moneta Elementary’s numbers aren’t declining.
    “You can’t shut down this school, you just can’t,” Chattin said.

Community support
    Jon Thompson, who attended Moneta Elementary as a child, moved back to the area to raise his family in Moneta. He serves on the board of directors for the Moneta Recreation Association and his wife, Robin, is the school’s PTA president.
    Thompson said their initial reaction was shock, “closely followed by dismay” as to why this was sprung on the community “at the 11th hour.”
    “You would have thought this would have been brought to us earlier,” he said.
    He said closing Moneta Elementary seems to be a decision that was pre-determined.
    Thompson said there are factual errors in the efficiency study report that should cause everybody to “pause and question the validity of the report.” Those include the construction date of the school cited in the report and its determination that school enrollment is declining.
    “You wonder what else they missed,” he said. “If the fundamental data they are using to form a conclusion is incorrect, I don’t know how much water that study can hold until it’s corrected.”
    He said Moneta Elementary is in a unique spot to have a school with the fire department, rescue squad and a physician’s office all located next to the school.
    Thompson said repairs to the septic system will have to be made whether Moneta Elementary stays open or not.
    He said no schools should be closed, but called it suspicious that the south end of the county continues to be targeted for school closures.
    Students in Moneta would have much longer travel times to school and would have to deal with larger class sizes if the school is closed, Thompson said.
    “We’re trying to keep the emotion out of it; we’re trying to use strictly facts,” he said.
    He said the quality of the school system plays an integral part when someone considers moving into an area, adding closing Moneta Elementary would hurt that factor when someone is considering whether to live in Bedford County or Franklin County.
    “I think the school board is being extremely short-sighted in their budgetary belt tightening,” Thompson said. “We moved back here so my children could be brought up where I was.”
    Though his children will have moved on to the middle school from Moneta Elementary, he said it is important to the community to keep the school open.
    “This community is what the world is trying to be,” Thompson said. That includes a school system that is supported by the teachers, by the parents, by volunteers and by businesses and industry.    “That school is the lynch pin of what keeps us together,” he said. “We are small but we are extremely proud of what we represent.”
    Thompson said it’s sad that closing Moneta Elementary is even being brought to the table. Even in tough economic times, he said families seek to do the best for their children. Closing the school would not be what is best for the community’s children, he said.
    “It is not in their best interest by a long shot,” Thompson said.
    He said the community is willing and able to work together to do what needs to be done to keep the school open.
    “I don’t think they appreciate the degree of support this community has for this school,” he said. “The county is more reactionary than proactive as to what they do for our children.”
    He said the community owes it to the children to do the best they can for them. “This is not the best option available,” Thompson said. “They deserve better.”
    He hopes the school board will slow the decision-making process down and get the correct facts.
    “We would like to be a part of the decisions (being made),” he said. “It appears to this community, that this is a band aid. This is putting out fires rather than long-term planning.”
    A Facebook page—Help Protect Moneta Elementary School From Shutting Down—has been set up and already has 710 “Likes.”
    A large amount of Moneta residents are expected to turn out for the May 29 school board meeting.
    Chattin said anyone wanting information about the school’s effort may contact her through email at jpchattin@gmail.com.