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Public hearing on possible school closings is Monday

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By Tom Wilmoth

The Bedford County School Board will be conducting a public hearing on potential closing/consolidation of elementary schools in the Staunton River Zone and the resulting redistricting of students.

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    In anticipation of that meeting, residents of the Body Camp and Moneta communities came together this weekend to prepare for the week ahead.
    The public hearing will take place Monday, June 2, 7 p.m. in the Staunton River High School auditorium. Anyone who wants to speak at this hearing should contact Sherry Ratliff, School Board Clerk, at 540-586-1045 x-257. Those wishing to speak may also sign up to speak on the evening of June  2  when  arriving   at  the hearing. On June 5, the school board will hold a special called meeting to discuss, and potentially vote, on school closures.
    A state-mandated school efficiency review of BCPS released May 15 recommended that Bedford Primary School and Moneta Elementary School be closed in an effort to save $8 million over the next five years. But the School Board will also consider closing Body Camp Elementary instead of Moneta Elementary in the Staunton River Zone. Whichever school is closed, most of the elementary schools in the area could be affected in some way, due to redistricting of the students.

The communities rally             News of the recommendation came as a surprise to the Moneta and Body Camp communities.   District 2 School Board member Jason Johnson met Sunday with residents from both communities to discuss the issue. Johnson told members of both communities he would vote against any proposal to close either of the schools.
    Sunday’s meeting in the Moneta community was the second week in a row he had spent a part of a Sunday afternoon with parents and concerned residents there.  Those gathered strategized as to how to approach this Thursday’s School Board meeting and then the public hearing on Monday. A letter is being drafted to distribute to School Board members calling for all school closings to be postponed so further study can be looked into about the potential school closings.
    Moneta residents also echoed earlier sentiments of presenting a unified front against all school closings at all with the other communities facing potential school closings,  rather than having each school community tearing the other apart.
    Johnson encouraged the residents to mobilize their effort.
    “I’m learning more about sewage than I’ve ever cared to know,” Johnson told the Moneta meeting, speaking about the failed septic system at the school. He did encourage residents to attend this past Tuesday night’s Board of Supervisors meeting to express their views to the supervisors and urge the county to provide more funding to the school system.
    Johnson said he believes the current proposal is to close one of the Staunton River Zone elementary schools—Body Camp or Moneta—this upcoming school year and close one of the Liberty Zone schools—Thaxton Elementary or Bedford Primary—the following school year.
    He said the communities are in this fight together and urged a unified front between the two Staunton River Zone schools. “I think this is moving too quickly,” Johnson said.
    While he doesn’t favor closing community schools, Johnson said he would favor closing Thaxton and Bedford Primary, both in the Liberty Zone, instead of the schools in the Zone he represents.

Body Camp residents meet
    Residents who attended the Body Camp meeting were upset they learned the day before school let out that their school could potentially be closed next school year. Some felt Moneta had been given the upper hand because residents there had been given notice a week prior when the announcement was made at the efficiency review study meeting.
    “We don’t want either school to close,” Body Camp Elementary PTA President Don Ferguson said. “But that’s out of our control.”
    He said it was important to keep emotions in check. “We don’t want to turn one community against another,” he said.
    Ferguson told those gathered for the meeting, held just off the school grounds, that if a school closes there will be more children in the classrooms and the teachers are going to need the help of all the parents, whichever school remains open. “The children are the reason we are here,” he said. “The (school’s) community is going to get a little bigger (if a school closes). There can’t be any bad feelings between us or them (whatever happens).”
    Johnson, who quickly made his way from Moneta to the Body Camp meeting Sunday afternoon, said if the sewer issue at Moneta Elementary could be taken out of the equation, the school system might have more time to consider the issue. “I think that buys us more time,” he said about deciding which of the four schools recommended should be closed.
    He again urged community residents to ask the supervisors for more school funds, stating the school system is “running a pretty tight ship.”
    While Body Camp Elementary has been targeted by the School Board in recent years for potential closing, Johnson said the school has made significant strides in both its education of the students and its retention of students to that school. In the past, it had a significantly higher number of students seeking transfers into other elementary schools. “Body Camp is doing a lot of things really well right now,” he said.
    
The letter
    Johnson told residents at Body Camp he was as surprised as everyone else to read in the letter that went home to parents that either Body Camp or Moneta would be closed.
    Board Chairman Gary Hostutler, however, said Johnson was told about the contents of the letter, as were all of the other School Board members. “As soon as I received the letter, I did text (school superintendent) Dr. Schuch,” Johnson said of his surprise.
    Johnson said the issue as it was presented in the letter is like having two children and being asked to choose which is your favorite. “Moneta and Body Camp Elementary schools are the heart and soul of their communities,” he said. Closing one of them, Johnson said, “would be to gut the heart of the community.”
    Hostutler said Monday that school board members wanted to get a letter out to parents prior to school being let out.
    “We’re under a time constraint here,” he said, if a school is to be closed for the upcoming school year.
    Hostutler said he checked with other board members prior to sending out the letter, which went to parents throughout the Staunton River Zone. He said that included emails and phone calls.
    He said he thought parents would appreciate being notified prior to the summer break beginning.
    The School Board has considered closing Body Camp Elementary in recent years, but eventually opted not to do that. But Hostutler said the recommendation in the state-mandated school efficiency study to close two schools—one in the Staunton River Zone and one in the Liberty Zone—has brought that issue back to the forefront. He said the problem with the septic system at Moneta Elementary, in which two of the school’s three drain fields have failed, has accelerated the potential timeline for closing a school in that zone.
    Body Camp Elementary was thrown back into the mix, because it was included as a second-tier option for a school that could be closed.
    “The state doesn’t care which two (schools are closed), just that we need to close two,” he said. Hostutler said it would not be prudent to close Moneta Elementary if there are lingering issues at Body Camp.
    He said that led to the decision to include Body Camp as part of the focus of the public hearing on June 2.
    “All of this has unfolded very quickly,” he said. “I was dumbfounded that Moneta was at the top of the list.”
    Had there not been an issue with the septic system at Moneta Elementary, he said the school closing issue probably wouldn’t have been considered this quickly.
    Fixing that septic system would be a “significant investment of money we don’t have,” he said.
    The School Board has a tour of the schools scheduled for Saturday.
    Hostutler said he is not throwing his weight around by moving on the issue. He said he checked with everyone, including Johnson, about including Body Camp as a subject of the public hearing on school closings. He said a majority of the board members were in favor of moving ahead, so the meetings were scheduled.
    “Everybody agreed let’s do this the first week in June,” he said.
    If a school is slated to be closed this year, he said the school administration will need as much time as possible to work through the closing process.
    Hostutler said closing a school will affect all of the elementary schools in the Zone. “That’s why we invited the entire Zone,” he said of the meeting.
    He said small schools are inefficient, adding that all of the schools in the Staunton River Zone have capacity for more students.
    He said having small schools does not mean they are better schools. “They actually aren’t that effective,” he said. “Their scores aren’t better.”
    By consolidating schools, Hostutler said additional services could be provided to students.

When they might decide
    On June 5, the School Board will hold the special called meeting at 6 p.m. in the School Board Office conference room to discuss and possibly take action regarding the potential consolidation of elementary schools in the Staunton River Zone for 2014-15, and the resulting redistricting of students. Though no public comment will be received at this meeting, it will be open to the public.
    The School Board will also meet this Thursday, May 29, in closed session beginning at 4 p.m. with a budget work session immediately following. The regular session will begin at 7 p.m. in the conference room at the School Board Office.

Coming together
    Residents of both Body Camp and Moneta were urged to attend a prayer service on Sunday, June 1, at 6 p.m in Downtown Moneta. A flyer on the event said it is a chance for the communities to come together, united for a time of prayer to lift up the schools, children and community to God. The prayer service is being sponsored by Bethlehem United Methodist Church.