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School board to take close look at budget

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By John Barnhart

The Bedford County School Board will look at the upcoming year’s budget line by line, looking for savings.

    Randy Hagler, the school division’s chief financial officer, believes he has already found one place to save. Hagler presented his idea to the school board during a marathon work session last week.
    Hagler said that changing school start times could save the school division $378,000 by eliminating the need for 20 bus runs. The start times for high schools and middle schools would need to be separated by between 45 minutes and one hour to accomplish this. He listed three neighboring school divisions, Amherst County, Lynchburg and Roanoke that already separate high school/middle school and elementary school starting times by at least an hour.
    “This is great work by you and your staff,” commented  District 2 school board member David Vaden.
    According to Vaden, this savings is equal to salaries for seven teachers. Vaden has also suggested putting the school division’s student manual online. He said that could save $50,000 in printing costs.
    Finding savings will be important as the revenue picture that Hagler painted was gloomy. Student enrollment will drop next year, which means less money from the state. A further reduction will come as the “hold harmless” provision that came with adjustments to the state’s view of localities’ ability to pay drops to 50 percent. A regular revision to this would have resulted in a large cut to localities, such as Bedford County, where real estate values did not drop as far as they did in  other  areas of  the  Commonwealth.  This  would have resulted in a substantial reduction in state revenue going to these areas, but the General Assembly voted to hold those school divisions harmless last year, giving them 100 percent of what they would normally get in the current fiscal year. That drops to 50 percent in the coming fiscal year. Hagler said that the amount of money coming to Bedford County Public Schools from the state will drop by $1.3 million.
    “That’s where I see the state numbers,” he said. “I expect it to change dramatically.”
    However, the same decline in enrollment that will result in a reduction in state funding will also cut the school division’s expenses. A sheet that Dr. Mac Duis, director of instruction, provided the school board shows that, under current staffing standards, the school division will need 16 fewer teachers, one less assistant principal, one less guidance counselor, along with the reduction of four other school staff positions. That would reduce the school division’s expenses by $1.14 million.
    Furthermore, federal stimulus money to the school division is drying up.
    “That’s $3.6 million going away from federal money next year,” he said.
    “This is just a revenue snapshot as I see it now,” he added.
    The school division is currently sitting on about $2 million in funds from a federal jobs bill. District 4 school board member Gary Hostutler suggested that the school board continue to sit tight until  members see what the state budget looks like. Hostutler said that this money could save 40 teaching positions for a year.
    The school board also looked at a change in its meeting schedule, and plans to vote on this during the Dec. 9 regular meeting. Currently the school board meets on the second and fourth Thursdays of each month. The new meeting schedule would set regular meetings once every three weeks with the first meeting of the new year falling on Jan. 13.
    In addition to these meetings, the school board would have some additional work sessions     the first  on Jan. 27, starting at 5 p.m. at the school division’s central office. Another is scheduled for Feb. 10 at 5 p.m. and a third work session is tentatively scheduled for March 17 at 2 p.m.
    Two others have been tentatively scheduled — one for Feb. 24 at 5 p.m. and another for March 31.
    In addition to these work sessions, the Feb. 3 regular meeting will start at 6 p.m., an hour earlier than normal, to allow time for a work session in addition to regular business.
    Also last week the school board took a look at facilities planning, something that carries a note of uncertainty due to the city’s intention to revert to town status. Kathleen Guzi, the county administrator, spoke to the school board about the process. Guzi said that county and city representatives are still negotiating on the issue and Guzi believes they are close to a deal. Until that point is reached, however, the only thing she can say is that the city does plan to revert and the school contract will go away at that time.
    Rather than have its own school system, the city of Bedford contracts with Bedford County for school services. Under this contract, the city is responsible for providing a middle school and an elementary school. Reversion to town status means that Bedford would no longer be an independent city, but part of the county.
    Bedford Middle School will present a dilemma after reversion. Dennis Overstreet, the school division’s maintenance supervisor, said that the building will need to have its roof replaced in four or five years.
    “Age is a factor with the middle school,” he said.
    Hostutler suggested that putting more money into that building would not be a wise step. Hagler responded, saying that figures provided by the state indicate that it would cost $30 million to build a new middle school, which would add $3 million per year to the school division’s debt service. Hagler added that, in the current economic environment, construction costs will be lower than at the time that estimate was prepared.
    Mickey VanDerwerker, who represents the city on  the school board, suggested that instead of building a new middle school they could build a new high school to replace Liberty High School. Liberty’s campus could then become the middle school.
    One area of certainty that the school board does have about its school facilities, is that enrollment is projected to decline over the next five years. Estimates show that school enrollment could increase slightly in the Forest area, but will decline in the Liberty and Staunton River zones. Mark Blankenship, supervisor of testing and planning, told the school board he expects attendance in the Liberty zone to go down by 253 and Staunton River to drop by 272 during the next five years.
    One suggestion that the school board plans to look into is moving eighth grade into the high school buildings. This would make all the middle schools, including Bedford Middle School, house sixth and seventh grades. Sixth graders in the Liberty zone are currently still at their respective elementary schools because Bedford Middle School does not have enough room for them.
    This would reduce the need for mobile classrooms. Hagler said that there are a number of these at Forest Middle School and three are leased. Eliminating these mobiles would allow the school-owned mobile classrooms to be sent to other schools, eliminating a total of 14 leased mobile classrooms for a savings of $144,000.
    Although Dr. Duis said that the school system can make this work with enough advanced planning time, JFHS principal Tony Francis sounded a cautionary note. He said that Jefferson Forest High School’s building is already at 100 percent utilization. Furthermore, the school design makes it impossible to segregate eighth graders from the high school students.
    “Eighth graders would be in hallways with twelfth graders,” he said.
    “Can we make it work?” Francis asked. “Yes, we can make it work, but it will be painful and some people will be upset.”