School Board to discuss school closings Thurs.

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By Tom Wilmoth

    They’ve toured the schools; they’ve listened to hours of comments from the public.

    They’ve had phone calls and emails.
    They’ve seen the signs; they’ve answered questions from the media.
    Now, it’s time to decide—maybe.
    The Bedford County School Board will meet this Thursday night, June 5, for a special called meeting at 6 p.m. in the auditorium at Bedford Science and Technology Center to discuss—and possibly take action—regarding the potential closing of either Moneta Elementary or Body Camp Elementary schools.
    No public comment will be received at this meeting, but it will be open to the public. The meeting location was moved to BSTC to accommodate what is expected to be a large crowd.
    The school board members will have to decide whether to close a school for the upcoming school year, and if they decide to close a school they will have to vote on which one to close. Two board members attempted to have a vote delayed during a meeting last week, but both motions failed. Still, the final vote on the matter failed by only one vote and if  one  member  would switch his or her vote, that could delay any potential school closings, at least for the 2014-2015 school year.

Touring the schools
    Six of the board’s seven members toured both Body Camp and Moneta elementary schools Saturday morning.
    Followed by supporters of those schools, the tours were an attempt to get a better idea of how the two schools compared with one another and what the current and potential future maintenance needs might be.
    They explored the classrooms, kitchens and offices. They looked at boilers, gymnasiums and drain fields. They took notes and asked questions. Staff members shared maintenance information with board members during the tour.
    After the second tour, School Board Chairman Gary Hostutler said it was good to see the schools and gather additional information to help with the decision-making process. He said the failed septic system at Moneta Elementary is a part of the issue board members will have to consider. Fixing that could cost from $200,000 to $400,000.
    Hostutler noted that Moneta Elementary is 20 years newer than Body Camp and that both schools are still using a lot of the original equipment they had when they were built. He said Moneta Elementary is a larger school and has some amenities such as the park and access nearby to fire, rescue and medical services, all located within a block of the school.
    “They both have positives and things that are a little negative,” he said.
    He said what was certain is that the school system does “a phenomenal” job with maintaining the schools and said he appreciated the work the maintenance staff does to keep the building operational.

The decision
    “We are taking this very seriously,” Hostutler said of the decision the school board is grappling with, concerning closing two schools—one in the Staunton River Zone and one in the Liberty zone.
    He said by consolidating schools, the educational process can be more efficient and the students can be offered more opportunities than they can at a small school. “Smaller schools are less efficient,” he said.
    “Educationally we’ll see some benefits,” he said of the rationale behind closing smaller schools.
    Hostutler said he believes the School Board, as a result of the state-mandated efficiency study, is obligated to close two schools. He believes failing to follow that recommendation of the study  could jeopardize the $90 million the county has been promised from the state in additional school funding, as a result of Bedford’s reversion to town status last year.
    “We have to be practical with this,” he said, of the school system’s overall declining enrollment.
    If schools are closed, Hostutler said the children would adjust quickly.
    The school system could save up to $800,000 a year for each school it closes, some $8 million over the next five years if two schools are closed.
    He expects the board to take seriously the comments that have been made the past two weeks—and during Monday’s public hearing—as a decision on closing schools is made. “We’re always trying to learn,” he said. “We understand the emotions of the communities and their concerns (about closing schools).”
    He said overall, in the Staunton River zone, the five elementary schools are operating at only 70 percent capacity.
    Hostutler believes the school system needs to comply with 80 percent to 90 percent of the recommendations made in the efficiency study. “I think they’re going to look very closely at this,” he said of the General Assembly’s monitoring of how BCPS follows the recommendations.
    Funding, he said, is the key issue. Without additional funding, teaching positions will have to be cut, he said. This year the school board is set to cut 46 teaching and administrative positions.
    District 2 school board member Jason Johnson, who has said he will vote against closing either of the schools in the Staunton River Zone, said safety issues raised in the study about Thaxton Elementary should be the board’s first concern.