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During last year’s budget discussions the Bedford County School Board decided to hire out a facilities study in order to get a comprehensive look at what to expect in construction needs for the school system in the years ahead. At the time several issues were being discussed, including moving eighth graders over to Liberty High School to make room for sixth graders at Bedford Middle School. The hope was that the study could help provide some plausible solutions to the facility needs of the school system, even possibly looking at some “out-of-the-box” possibilities.
Last Thursday school board members got a look at the draft of that report, prepared by M.B. Kahn Construction Co., Inc. That draft report was filled with the obvious — the growth area is in the Forest zone, too many mobile classrooms are used and there are lots of spending needs. But at first glance the study appears to be short on creative solutions, some of which may be needed in these tight economic times.
The study pointed out that between now and 2012 the school system is likely to see moderate growth. In the last nine years the system’s growth has remained relatively stable with 10,697 students in the 2000-2001 school year to 10,664 this year. The highest enrollment over that time period was in 2006-2007 with 10,911. The report projected an enrollment of 11,222 10 years from now, but, as a rule, enrollment projections are little more than speculation five years out. In fact, Bedford County’s own enrollment projections have been hard to project from one year to the next. In addition, the economy, the study notes, could have an impact on those enrollment projections as well. The Forest zone’s growth could be stunted should businesses be impacted in that growth area. “While there is expected to be growth, it is expected to be significantly less than what occurred between 1990 and 2000,” the report stated. Long-term expectations project moderate growth in the Forest zone with the Liberty zone remaining stable and the Staunton River zone seeing a decline.
While the study looked at the needs of individual schools, it also looked at the overall needs of each zone. To no one’s surprise, the greatest need was dealing with the middle school capacity in the Forest and Liberty zones. In the Forest zone recommendations included expanding Forest Middle School to accommodate 1,020 students (at a cost of $11.5 million), building a new middle school ($39.3 million cost), or building a sixth grade academy ($32.3 million price tag). In the Liberty zone, the possibilities for dealing with the middle school issue (currently sixth graders in this zone attend sixth grade at elementary schools) included building a new middle school ($40.5 million cost), expanding/renovating Bedford Middle School ($21.2 million), creating a sixth grade academy ($10.7 million) or converting Bedford Elementary School to a middle school and constructing a new elementary school ($46.9 million).
If the school system had lots of money to spend, deciding from among those options would be akin to a child spending time in a candy store: “Everything looks good and it’s just a matter of what I want today.” But the truth is even in the best of economic times (between 2000-2007) the school system struggled to come up with the funds from the county for construction projects and the recently completed Jefferson Forest High School project, while a showplace now, took a decade to come to fruition. Budgets are going to get even harder to balance in the days ahead and extra money is not likely to be available for major projects any time soon.
The truth is, creative solutions are more likely to be needed in the coming years than deep-pocket spending proposals. It’s nice to dream and plan, but real decisions will be made in light of the reality of the economic situation at that time.