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School board considers redistricting issue

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By Tom Wilmoth

    The Bedford County School Board may soon look seriously at redistricting some county students in order to better utilize school facilities.
    During a work session Thursday, the board received a plan which would call for about 2 percent of the total student population to be redistricted with less than 1 percent actually changing graduation zones.
    The plan, presented by Mark Blankenship, the school system’s director of testing and planning, would help relieve overcrowding at Forest Elementary and New London Academy as well as make better use of the existing capacities at Big Island and Boonsboro Elementary schools.
    District 7 board member Kevin Willis said it would be best to deal with the redistricting issue “sooner rather than later,” adding that doing so “is in everyone’s best interest.”
    The board may consider changes for as early as next fall and board members expressed a desire to minimize any “grandfathering” in of students at their current schools.
    The goal would be to get school populations closer to their actual capacity. Under the plan, Boonsboro’s enrollment would grow from 268 to 291, moving 14 students out to Big Island  but   adding   37   from Forest Elementary.
    Forest Elementary’s enrollment would be reduced from 460 to 359 by sending 14 students to Big Island and 50 to Thomas Jefferson Elementary schools, along with the redistricting to Boonsboro.
    New London would reduce its student population from 339 to 295 by sending 56 students from Otter River, while adding 12 from TJES in the plan.
    Otter River would move 19 students to Big Island and 29 to Bedford Elementary/Bedford Primary, while adding the majority of its students from New London.
    In all Big Island would grow from 177 students to 224, leaving it at 75 percent capacity.
    All of those numbers are based on if redistricting took place today and no one was grandfathered in to their current schools. The actual numbers would be subject to when redistricting actually took place and what students would be allowed to stay at their current schools.
    Another factor discussed Thursday could also affect those numbers: sending more sixth grade students to Bedford Middle School.
    The board discussed the possibility of sending some, if not all of the sixth graders in the Liberty Zone to Bedford Middle. Board members differed on just how many students should be sent.
    The Liberty Zone sixth grade class has been the only one of the three zones that hasn’t gone to a middle school. Currently sixth graders from Bedford Elementary have been moved to BMS, but the sixth grade students at the other feeder schools—Montvale, Thaxton and Big Island—have remained at those schools because of a lack of space at BMS.
    Should reversion go through as expected, a new middle school will be built to accommodate all the sixth graders, but some board members would like to make that happen before the school is constructed.
    If all the students would be moved to BMS, the projected enrollment would be at or above the school’s capacity—and school officials state that even this year, with a lower enrollment than that, space is tight at the school.
    “Nothing’s impossible,” stated Assistant School Superintendent Dr. Cherie Whitehurst about moving all of the sixth graders to the school, “but it would be a tremendous challenge.”
    That led to a couple of suggestions.
    One was to try and move one more school’s students to BMS next year, instead of all of the sixth graders. A second suggestion was to ask the city of Bedford whether it would allow mobile classrooms at the school for the next few years until the new school is built. Traditionally, the city has been against allowing mobile classrooms at the school.
    Board vice chairman Julie Bennington said it’s important for the sixth graders to get the middle school experience. “I think we need to start it as soon as possible,” she said of moving all of the sixth grade students to BMS. “I’d like to get them all in (next year).”
    District 6 board member Kelly Harmony said it should be all of the students or none. “I would hate to be the school left out,” she said.
    School officials are expected to check with city officials to see what, if any, concessions could be made on mobile units.