School system trims expenses to cover shortfall, cleanup

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By Tom Wilmoth

A $1.4 million shortfall in state funds, along with a $216,000 bill for MRSA cleanup, has the Bedford County School administration and School Board looking for ways to cut expenses.

A report to the School Board earlier this month by School Director of Finance Randy Hagler noted that state sales tax revenue is expected to fall some $500,000 short of budget projections while the state revenue based on average daily membership is down some $900,000.

Hagler said the sales tax revenue projections had been based on calculations provided by the state to each district. That budget was set at $9.4 million, but Hagler said current projections for actual revenue are at $8.9 million. "This is only a projection and will change as the year proceeds," Hagler noted this week.

When the budget was set last year, it was based on an average daily membership for the school system of 11,035 students. The state will use the March 2008 membership as the final number, but current projection has the number at 10,822, a decline of 213, Hagler stated. That translates into an additional $903,000 decline in state funds.

"As actual membership goes up or down from projections, funds sent to the district are also adjusted," Hagler said.

Hagler reported to the board about the expenses that are being cut to help cover that shortfall. Those include in instruction category: classroom, $635,000; improvements, $84,000; technology, $172,000; media, $108,000; principal, $36,000. There are also reductions in transportation ($132,175), maintenance ($173,707) and administration ($61,200).

Those expense cuts include staff positions not being filled that were budgeted, not staffing positions in which employees have resigned, cutting travel and supplies expenses and actual savings from budgeted items, such as where salaries are less than expected.

With those cuts already made, the expense of the MRSA (Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus) could cut further into the maintenance budget.

That's a scenario District 7 School Board member Debbie Hoback would like to avoid.

"We have got to stop looking at maintenance as the first escape," she stated during the Nov. 8 board meeting on finding a way to pay for the cleanup. "We need to look somewhere else before we take this from maintenance."

She said maintenance projects continue to fall behind to the point that it will be hard to catch up."We've got to keep the schools under repair."

The school system has staunchly defended the expense of the MRSA cleanup, because it helped alleviate fears parents had on sending their students back to school following the death of Staunton River High School senior Ashton Bonds from apparent complications related to MRSA in October. The school system shut down for a day and brought in a professional cleaning crew to work at several schools where students had been diagnosed with MRSA.

In addition, the school system has since trained its own staff to use the cleaning materials and techniques used by the professional crew.

"We can pull people from other schools to help us go in and do that," Dr. James Blevins said of future cleaning work.

School Board Chair Joy Wright said it was an expense worth the cost. "When it comes to our students, it's priceless," she said. "We need to keep our students safe."

The school system continues to hope the county will help with the expense of the MRSA cleanup.

"There's still no definite arrangement for the payment," stated Ryan Edwards, public relations coordinator for Bedford County Public Schools. "We are anticipating the county will be able to help us with this. We're hoping that they'll see the need to help."

Edwards did say a substantial part of the funding will probably come from funds for future maintenance projects, focusing on projects that are not "in dire need."

Hoback said it's important to look for any way to cut expenses, from turning off lights to looking for ways to cut transportation costs, such as buses driving around the county empty. "It will add up," she said of the savings. "We're down to crunch time. We've got to start saving pennies."

Another potential cost saver could be addressing the student-to-teacher ratio issue.

A report presented to the board at the meeting shows a wide discrepancy in that ratio at different elementary schools. Overall, the ratios in the school division range from a 17.3 to 1 pupil to teacher ratio in second grade to a 20 to 1 ratio in sixth grade. With the addition of resource teachers to the ratio, it drops from 13.1:1 to 14.8:1. The Virginia Standards of Quality ratio requirement is 24:1 in grades K-3 and 25:1 in grades 4-6.

Individual schools reveal a wide discrepancy. At Bedford Primary School there are five kindergarten classes with a total student membership of 109 students, a 21.8:1 ratio while Big Island Elementary has two kindergarten classes for 19 total students, a 9.5:1 ratio. Forest Elementary, Thomas Jefferson Elementary, Boonsboro Elementary, Montvale Elementary and New London Academy also have high student to teacher ratios in some classes while Body Camp Elementary and Moneta Elementary have some classes with ratios 12:1 or less.

Edwards said this is an issue the board will be focusing on over the next several months. He said several factors have to be taken into account, when considering solutions, including the rapport teachers develop with students and space. In some schools that need additional classes, there is no where to put the teachers.

"We have definite space issues," he said. He cited Forest Elementary School as an example. "There's no space inside the school," he said.

He said eliminating classes will have to be considered carefully. "This is not an easy fix."

He expects the issue to be an issue during upcoming budget talks. "We want to avoid at all costs moving our children around. We realize that familiarity is a very important thing to children. If at all possible we want to keep the children in the school they're currently attending."

He said all options will have to be examined.

"We have children in some parts of the county that aren't getting the attention (others do)," he said.