Study recommends closing two schools

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By Tom Wilmoth




If Bedford County Public Schools wants to operate efficiently, two of its elementary schools should be closed, according to a state-mandated efficiency study released Thursday night.

The study recommended closing both Moneta Elementary School and Bedford Primary School in an effort to save $8 million over the next five years.

Closing the two schools was one of 101 recommendations included in the study. The school system will be expected by the state, over the next two years, to implement a majority of those recommendations in order to continue receiving an extra $6 million in state funding for schools that has been promised as part of the former city of Bedford's reversion to town status last year. Under that agreement the county is able to use, for 15 years, the former city's more favorable local composite index, the formula used to determine the state's funding for the school system.

Overall, the study's recommendations amounted to $11.4 million in cost savings while suggesting $5.4 million of additional costs.

A major goal of the study, according to Tatia Prieto, president of Prismatic Services Inc. which conducted the study, is to identify opportunities to reduce costs in non-instructional areas so those funds can be redirected back into the classroom.


School closings

While only one of the 101 total recommendations included in the study, the closing of schools recommendation was the one likely to bring the most reaction.

“It's a much more emotional issue for the adults than it is for the children,” Prieto stated about closing schools. She said school divisions, after taking that step, often say that they wish they had closed schools earlier and that “once we got used to it, it was fine.”

But those reactions aren't likely to be felt immediately by the communities affected.

“We'll take some time to work through this,” School Board Chairman Gary Hostutler told those who attended the meeting held at Bedford Elementary School. “We know some of these are going to be difficult decisions.”

But looking at the school closing issue may need to come sooner, rather than later.

Moneta Elementary School is finishing out its school year with two of its three drainage fields, part of its septic system, having failed. The third drainage field is also having problems and the school maintenance staff is trying to keep it running one more week to get it through the end of the school year. Fixing those systems is estimated to cost at least $400,000, a cost the school board will have to consider in light of the study's recommendation to close the school.

District 2 Board Member Jason Johnson said he was surprised that Moneta Elementary was one of the school recommended for closing. Nevertheless, Johnson, who attended Moneta Elementary and whose mother was part of the last graduating class of it when it was Moneta High School, said it is an issue the board will have to consider soon because of the maintenance issues at the school.

Johnson said he plans to talk to the district's residents to hear how they feel about the recommendation.

Hostutler, who has supported closing some of the smaller elementary schools in the past, realizes that schools closings are difficult for the smaller communities affected. “We can't continue to operate 21 schools when you have declining enrollment,” he said. “It's not good for education.

But closing Moneta Elementary this year would be difficult to implement, he said, given that school will be opening in mid-August, just three months from now.

Bedford Primary School has been on the board's closing list before. The board, several years ago, had supported closing that school but, following community reaction to the recommendation, decided not to take that action.

District 7 School Board Member Kevin Willis said he was disappointed that school closings were having to be considered, once again. But, he said, budget constraints are “going to require us to make tough decisions.”

He said the board will have to consider, if schools are closed, where those students will be attending school and is there adequate facility space to accommodate those students. “It's just hard,” he said of closing schools.

As for the issue with Moneta Elementary, and the cost of fixing the drainage system, he said a decision will have to be made soon. “It may be the perfect storm,” he said of the situation there.