School board questions behind-the-wheel training

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By Tom Wilmoth

    Behind-the-wheel training will continue to be available for students in Bedford County Public Schools, at least through this fall, but school officials are looking at the possibility of phasing out the program in the future.
    But several speakers, at last Thursday’s meeting of the Bedford County School Board, encouraged the board not to drop the program.
    “This is more than just a dollars and cents decision,” stated Frank Cifarelli, who has more than 25 years teaching driver education to students. He said the alternative, relying on commercial options, would be “leaving a very poor alternative for our students.”
    School officials have considered eliminating the program for several years, because of budget constraints. About 300 students each year from the county’s three high schools take the behind-the-wheel training. The school system has raised the cost of the program for the students to $185, but that’s still considerably below the $300 average cost that commercial providers charge.
    Don Toms told the school board that BCPS provides programs that meet the needs of the whole student, which includes the behind-the-wheel training. He said the program, with its current student cost, is a self-sustaining program.
    “I’m sure there are other areas of the budget we could look at (cutting),” he said. “Let’s make behind-the-wheel training a priority for the benefit of our students.”
    Speakers argued that the $185 charge is already difficult for some families to pay and that would only be exacerbated if their families had to come up with $300 for a commercial provider.
    Callie Amos, a student who recently completed the training provided by BCPS, urged the board not to drop it. “It offered me the comfort of learning to drive in a familiar environment,” she said.
    Bedford Mayor Skip Tharp, speaking on behalf of Bedford County Combined Accident Reduction Effort (BedCo CARES) spoke in favor of the school system continuing to offer the program, noting that the organization, formed to promote safe teen driving in the county, supports students and the program financially. “We are talking about the lives of our children,” Tharp said about the importance of the training.
    Phyllis Buckner, who has been working with the program for close to four decades, said Bedford County’s behind-the-wheel training is unique. “We have lots and lots of experience,” she said of the instructors. “That’s what makes us special.”
    She said teen crashes are preventable, with the proper training to the students. “They do not need to happen,” Buckner said. “This should not be a budget issue. This is an ethical issue.”
    School officials have stated that the administration of the program, along with the cost of having to replace the training vehicles, are the budgetary reasons driving the push to eliminate the behind-the-wheel training to students.
    School board member Kelly Harmony, however, said the program has the ability to benefit every student in the county, something other programs supported by the school system fail to do. “Every student needs to know how to drive,” Harmony said. “We would be doing a great disservice (to them) if we discontinue this program.”
    Board member Kevin Willis added that it is a community service that the school system has traditionally provided for students. “It is about the children,” he said.
    Dr. Mac Duis said the school system has subsidized the behind-the-wheel training program for years. He added that it is possible additional commercial providers could start operating if the school system drops its program. Some fear the current amount of providers wouldn’t be able to handle the additional students.
    Should the school system drop the program, school officials noted that a transition policy would be in place. The board is expected to discuss the issue at a later meeting.