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School Board votes to close Bedford Primary

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By Tom Wilmoth

    Under a budget approved by the Bedford County School Board Thursday night, Bedford Primary School will be closed next year while Body Camp Elementary will remain open. School employees will also receive a 1 percent pay raise.

    After considering closing both schools, the board agreed at Thursday's special called meeting to consolidate Bedford Primary with Bedford Elementary School next year, making it a K-5 school. Sixth graders currently at the school will move over to Bedford Middle School.
    But for the second year in a row, the board chose to spare Body Camp Elementary from the chopping block. School Superintendent  Dr.  Douglas  Schuch  had  proposed for the school to be closed in his budget presented to the board in March.
    “This has been the worst budget year since I’ve been on the board,” stated Board Chairwoman Debbie Hoback, prior to approving the $97.67 million school budget for 2011-2012. “The decisions that we have to make are very difficult.”
    Hoback said she struggled with what to do about closing the schools.
    “I have to do what’s best for the children,” she said. “That’s not always an easy thing to do.”
    She said, educationally, it would be best for both schools to be closed, but she felt, because Body Camp Elementary served a rural area, it should remain open. “What is best for one area of the county is not always best for another area,” she said about her decision. “In a rural area things are different than in an area where the population is more dense and the school is a little closer.”
    She also said the decision had become political. “Politically, the easy thing to do is nothing,” she said.
    Board members Julie Bennington and Gary Hostutler, who had supported closing Body Camp Elementary during discussions last week, changed their minds and agreed to keep that school open.
    “I got on the board to do what I feel is right for the children of Bedford County schools,” Bennington said of her decision.
    Board member Brad Whorley was against closing either school, stating that the money was there to keep both open. “This has been baptism by fire for me,” Whorley said, having just been elected to the board in November.
    Board member Joy Wright favored closing both schools, stating that students at each school would benefit educationally in the long run.
    “No one likes change; change is hard,” she said. “You can only tighten your belts so much. It (closing Body Camp) is going to come up again.”
    City school board member Mickey VanDerwerker, said while she supports eventually consolidating Bedford Primary and Bedford Elementary, it shouldn’t be done next year.  She said while she favored closing Body Camp Elementary, she would be willing to put it off a year as long as “we don’t have to fight this fight again.”
    “We are contracting as a division,” she said. “We can’t be what we have been. We can’t offer what we have offered.”
    VanDerwerker added that the school division needs to be planning for the future by upgrading the technology offered in the schools.
    Board member Shirley McCabe said students at Bedford Primary were being hindered by not being in the same building with the other elementary students, especially because they have to take their SOL tests in the third grade, their first year after moving from the primary school over to the elementary school. She said the school board had failed to help prepare them for that.
    Several other programs, that had been proposed to be cut by Dr. Schuch, were reinstated for next year, including the drivers-ed behind-the-wheel training and B-team sports. The cost to students of taking drivers-ed next year will increase from $100 to $185.
    The board also voted to keep $200,000 in the budget for a Blended Learning pilot program which will be implemented in one high school next year with the goal to move it to all of the high schools in following years. Dr. Schuch has called that program, which allows students to take online classes, as the number one strategy for the school system as it implements its strategic plan for the future.
    “I do not consider it a new program,” stated Dr. Schuch, adding that it is simply providing a new way to learn the basic courses. “Is it different? Yes; is it new? No,” he said. “This should really not be an option to us. We need to be doing this. … I believe this is what the kids need.”
    The 1 percent pay raise for school employees will add about $580,000 to the school budget next year.
    “We have got to do something for these teachers,” Hoback stated about the raise.
    Board member Gary Hostutler agreed. “I think they will appreciate it,” he said of the employees. “It helps make us a little more competitive in the marketplace.”
    The budget calls for the elimination of 59 positions, most which will be handled through attrition. However, 20 bus driver positions will be eliminated and many of those will have to be handled through layoffs.
    Barry Tosh, PTA president at Body Camp Elementary, said having their school remain open while having BPS closed was a “bitter-sweet” outcome.
    He said it was unfortunate to see a new program started at the expense of closing a school. Tosh also expects the issue of closing Body Camp to be back before the school board in the future. It is the county’s smallest school.
    “Body Camp has been spared for one year,” he said.
    During a press conference Friday, Dr. Schuch said he understood the disappointment felt by parents of Bedford Primary School students as well as the staff at the school. He was pleased that the budget was ultimately unanimously approved by the school board members, though he knew that “each one of them might not be in love with every aspect of what they approved.”
    He said his heart goes out to those who fought to keep the Primary School open.
    “Change is very difficult for everybody,” he said. “For the students, they're in a great school now and they’re going to a great school. We want them to continue to work hard, learn as much as they can and be positive about school.”
    He said staying positive is also important for the parents.
    “We want them to be just as active and involved and supportive at Bedford Elementary as they were at Bedford Primary, which is the school they would have been at eventually anyway,” he said.
    He also said the staff at both BPS and Bedford Elementary should do everything they can to partner with each other as the transition takes place.
    Dr. Schuch continues to feel it would be better educationally to close Body Camp and consolidate those students with Huddleston and Moneta Elementary schools. But, he said, the school system will do its best to provide services to all of those schools.
    “I don’t believe this issue goes away,” he added. “The declining enrollment...is a fact. If that trend continues, I do believe this will crop up in future years.”