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School budget hearing is Thursday at BSTC

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By Tom Wilmoth

Local residents will have their first official opportunity to speak to the Bedford County School Board about the 2012-2013 budget at its meeting this Thursday.
    A public hearing on the budget will be held at 7 p.m. at the auditorium of the Bedford Science and Technology Center.
    But this won’t be the first time board members or school officials will have actually heard from the public on the budget. Numerous meetings with PTAs, teachers and civic groups have been going on for months.
    “Rather than coming out with a lot of hard numbers and actual proposals, we’ve been talking and listening to folks in around around the schools and community,” stated School Superintendent Dr. Douglas Schuch of this year’s process. “We’re also keeping an eye on what’s happening at the state level.”
    In the recent past, the School Board has spent its time crafting a budget based on the governor’s proposed budget, only to see the numbers changed by the General Assembly late in the process. This year, Dr. Schuch said he hopes to have a more reliable state budget number before those proposals are made.
    He said last spring he and others from the administration began meeting with school faculties which included discussions of the upcoming budget year and priorities. A similar presentation has been shared with more than 20 community groups over the past several months. Dr. Schuch and other members of the school administration have also been meeting individually with School Board members to better understand their budget priorities. The Bedford City School Board has also presented its priorities, as part of the process.
    “We don’t have a budget in front of us that we are presenting,” he said of this week’s budget hearing. “We want as much community input into this budget process as possible.”
    Dr. Schuch anticipates presenting his budget proposal to the School Board in mid-March and a number of work sessions and special called meetings have been scheduled for discussion following that.
    “If we need more than that, we’ll certainly add to them,” he said.
    Dr. Schuch said throughout the process he will be in contact with County Administrator Kathleen Guzi about where the board is in its process. At this point, no joint work sessions about the budget have been scheduled with the Board of Supervisors.
    Dr. Schuch said he hopes this year’s process will help streamline the discussions, once state funding issues are resolved, at least to a point that the board can be more realistic with the budget numbers it presents to the supervisors.
    “It just makes sense to us,” he said.
    One of the big issues facing state legislators is funding for the Virginia Retirement System. The governor’s proposal calls for local funding to be stepped up significantly this year.
    “We’re still hoping the General Assembly will be committed to VRS but more flexible to phasing in these (rates),” he said.
    Otherwise, substantial cuts may be needed in other areas, and, according to Dr. Schuch, “That’s a bitter pill to ask a community to swallow.”
    Dr. Schuch said the School Board is committed to its strategic plan. Many of those plans, however, need financial resources, but some don’t. The latter includes expanding the school system’s internship program, in which high school students intern at local businesses. That program began this year with Liberty High School seniors but he hopes to see it expand to the other two high schools next year.
    Dr. Schuch encourages citizens to let their budget concerns be made known at the public hearing as well as through emails, written comments and phone calls—to the school administration and the board.
    “We’ve made a deliberate attempt to go out and get input from groups,” he said. “I think that’s an improvement to our process. That’s the input we need prior to proposing a budget.”
    In general, he said the comments being made so far center on the fact that more cuts shouldn’t be made, that “we have reduced so much, we have got to fight to maintain everything we currently have.”
    Since the 2008-2009 school year, the school budget has been reduced from $108 million to $96 million this year. He said maintaining class sizes, where they are, and teacher salaries have been a priority from those he’s heard from.
    “At a minimum (they want to) make sure we maintain what we’ve got and don’t go backwards in those areas,” he said.