Supervisors say they won't support closing the school

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By John Barnhart

    Dr. Douglas Schuch, Bedford County’s superintendent of schools, found himself in the hot seat at a Board of Supervisors meeting Monday evening.    
    After Julie Bennington, vice chairman of the school board gave the supervisors a rundown on the school budget, which includes closing Bedford Primary School, introducing a blended learning program and a 1 percent pay raise for school employees, District 1 Supervisor Dale Wheeler welcomed Dr. Schuch to “the wolf’s lair.”
    “I think I found a fox in the hen house,” Wheeler said, referring to a letter he got from a Bedford Primary School activist, dated March 20. “It tells   me    about    a  program called blended learning.” Wheeler said that he found that there was significant funding in the school budget to start up blended learning, which would provide for students to take online classes in the high schools. The figure for the blended learning start-up included in the school board budget is $200,000.
    Wheeler said that he supported providing the school division with an additional $1.1 million because he was under the impression that this was needed to keep the school board from closing two elementary schools, Body Camp Elementary School and Bedford Primary School.
    “I did it only to find out I’d been bamboozled,” he said.
    Along with doing Internet research to find out what blended learning is, he also contacted Stafford County Public Schools, where Dr. Schuch served in that school division’s central office before coming to Bedford County. Wheeler said that Dr. Schuch had recommended closing five elementary schools and two middle schools there. Wheeler said that when he asked what happened to the schools, he was told they are still open.
    “It turned out that they really liked their small community education system,” Wheeler said.
    Wheeler said that, last year, the supervisors got hit with a proposal to close Thaxton and Body Camp Elementary schools. The supervisors opposed this and the school board backed down.
    “I won’t kill a baby copperhead,” Wheeler commented, saying that he attributed Dr. Schuch’s proposal, last year, to the fact that the new superintendent still needed to get to know the area. “I’ll let it grow up until it’s big enough to strike.”
    “The copperhead is bigger than I thought,” Wheeler went on to say.
    Wheeler told Dr. Schuch that his decision to close elementary schools was like getting between a female bear and her cubs.
    “What you did was kick all these mama bears,” he said, pointing to the crowded meeting room.
    Wheeler then said that Dr. Schuch had accomplished something positive.
    “You got more people interested in civics and government than anybody I’ve seen,” Wheeler said.
    Wheeler went on to compare Dr. Schuch to the Persian king, Xerxes, who thought he could pick off the squabbling Greek city states one at a time. The Greeks, however, pulled together and defeated him.
    “You’ve got the entire Greek city state government against you,” he said, gesturing to the rest of the supervisors.
    “I wanted to give you $1.1 million,” Wheeler said to Dr. Schuch, but on Monday he called for cutting out the additional school funding. “I won’t reward bad behavior.”
    Wheeler specified a $200,000 reduction in the administration category of the school budget, apparently referring to the cost of Dr. Schuch’s salary, benefits and car allowance.
    He further stipulated that $1.5 million, which he said had been saved during the Jefferson Forest High School renovation, be placed in the county’s contingency fund. This would require the school board to come to the “wolf’s lair” in order to use the money for maintenance projects.
    “That money was never saved to convert a primary school to an office complex,” he said. “You will stay over there [in the current central office building].”
    The school budget does not include any funds for moving the Central Office out of its current facility.
    Wheeler said that many people consider him the board of supervisors’ liberal.
    “God help you when you get to the conservatives on the board,” he said. “You don’t threaten parents by closing down schools to pay for new programs.”
    Board Chairman Annie Pollard, in a less colorful speech, also criticized Dr. Schuch and the school board. She asked if Dr. Schuch intended to close all small schools and build mega-schools. Wheeler had already hit on this when he suggested that Dr. Schuch ‘s school consolidation ideas would result in more school construction that will “put us into debt we’ll never pay off.”
    “At this time I will not support a school budget that has school closings in it,” she said.
    “I realize I don’t have the authority to close a school,” said District 2 Supervisor Chuck Neudorfer.
    Neudorfer, however, said that it appears to him that the school board is closing Bedford Primary School in order to give school employees a 1 percent raise. Neudorfer noted that this is happening at a time when pay for all non-school county employees is frozen.
    “I’d like to give everybody a big raise, but this is not the time,” he said.
    He also said that, due to the economy, this is not the time to start a new program.
    “In my opinion, what they [the school board] did was boot the hard job to this board,” Neudorfer said.
    “We are not talking about a new program,” Dr. Schuch said, defending the proposal to implement blended learning.
    According to Dr. Schuch, blended learning is just a different way to deliver learning. It will allow students to learn at their own pace. Students who are able will be able to spend less time mastering a topic, while those who need more time will have it. He said that the traditional structured school classroom environment doesn’t work well for some
    “The student would have some control of this,” he said.
    “This is just the beginning of a major change that is going to happen in all school systems,” Dr. Schuch said, as he explained the importance of having blended learning in Bedford County’s schools.
    Dr. Schuch said that, due to modern technology, students are connected 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week, except when they go to school. He said that each year Bedford County’s school system puts off implementing this, it leaves the county a year further behind.
    “This is where we need to be going and where we need to be going as quickly as possible,” he said.
    He also supported the idea of consolidating schools, saying that a section of state code tells school boards to consolidate schools where it would be more efficient. He also said that most of the decline in elementary school enrollment is in the Staunton River and Liberty attendance zones.
    “We do like our neighborhood schools,” replied Wheeler. “Can you even comprehend that?”
    “It really does look bad to tell citizens we are going to close your school and then start a new program,” Pollard added.    
    District 4 Supervisor John Sharp was the only supervisor to defend the school budget. He said that they are sending the school board a mixed message. In the past, the supervisors have told the school board that they want them to spend money on the students, rather than facilities. Now, they are telling the school board to spend money on facilities.
    “No one else in the county has a primary school,” he said.
    He also supported the pay raise for school employees because the school division is already behind the pay scale of other localities.
    “I’m not saying they made the right decision,” Sharp concluded. “What I’m saying is their funds are limited and they are trying to put the money in classrooms. I’m saying I’m not necessarily proud of the way we treated the school board tonight.”
    “John, you would not support me in a 53 cent tax rate,” Wheeler said to Sharp, saying that the purpose of that tax rate increase was to support the schools.
    “I don’t have a primary school in the Staunton River district,” he added.
    Wheeler, Neudorfer, Pollard and District 5 Supervisor Steve Arrington said that they would not support the school budget. Wheeler said that he had spoken to District 3 Supervisor Roger Cheek, who was absent, and Cheek had stated his unwillingness to support a school budget that closes a school.
    “The consensus of this board is that we will not support a budget that closes a school,” said Pollard.
    Was Dr. Schuch surprised?
    “I would say a little bit, yes,” he replied to that question.
    Dr. Schuch also felt that the school delegation had been badly treated.
    “I thought we were invited here to have a dialogue in good faith,” he said.
    The county will hold a public hearing next Monday at 7:30 p.m. at Bedford Science and Technology Center to receive comments about the overall county budget. That meeting will be preceded by a 5 p.m. work session.