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Teachers to receive 4.25 percent raises

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By Tom Wilmoth

Though originally set at 5.8 percent, the Bedford County School Board still hopes a 4.25 percent pay raise for teachers approved Thursday will help make the school system's salaries more competitive with other area districts.

The board approved its $108 million budget on a 7-1 vote. District 3 board member David Black cast the dissenting vote, stating the raise was inadequate.

"We're just not doing it," he said of funding the needed increases.

Support personnel will receive 3.5 percent pay raises and school administration employees will receive 3.25 percent. The 4.25 teacher raises include the annual step increase.

For the first time, school employees will have to pay a portion of the increase in the costs of health insurance. Employees making less than $34,000 will pay $10 per month on an individual health plan while those making more than $34,000 will pay $20 per month.

The school system has included $700,000 more in fuel costs than last year and has cut 15 teaching positions in the middle and elementary schools. Included in this year's budget is funding for three part-time testing coordinators, one for each high school, who will oversee the 72 days of testing at the schools.

The school system was able to keep its prekindergarten program at its current level, which pleased District 6 board member Shirley McCabe. "That really makes me happy that the students are coming first," stated McCabe, who noted a study which said 90 percent of a child's learning ability has developed by the age of 5.

District 7 board member Debbie Hoback said she had hoped more could be done for teachers. "We are trying to play catch up," she said. "Our goal is just trying to get somewhere in the middle (of the salary range)."

She said by picking the budget apart, the board was able to increase the raise for teachers by one-quarter of a percent more than had been anticipated before Thursday's work session. But she warned about future budgets. "It's going to be even tighter than it is now," she said, echoing comments she made during a work session earlier that day.

"Over the next three years, there are going to be some very tough decisions that are going to have to be made," she said.

Those could include more teacher cuts. She said class size guidelines will have to be followed. "As hard as it is...you have to stick to it," she said, adding that some teachers have only 10 students in a class while others, at the same grade level, have 20 or more.

Also on Thursday the cost of putting in a road at New London Academy to help with safety issues was discussed.

And that cost continues to grow.

Originally expected to cost $800,000, the road's price is now $2.5 million, which will have to be paid to the Virginia Department of Transportation before the road is built. The funds will come from the school system's maintenance budget.

The school board is expected to ask the county to front the money for the road. But board members expressed concerns that other maintenance projects will be put on hold because of the road's costs. This year some projects had to be delayed because of unexpected costs including paying for the MRSA cleanup and installing lights at the high school softball fields. This could delay those projects again.

In other action Thursday the school board approved opening a virtual school for homeschooled students.

School officials sent out a letter last month to 405 families with registered homeschooled students in Bedford County to gauge their interest in participating in a virtual school program through the county. The packets included a survey post card asking parents if they would consider having their children participate in the program if it was made available next school year.

The program will have a $5,000 start-up cost.

More than 140 surveys were returned to the county, with 51 families reporting they would be interested in having their children involved. That represented a total of 76 children. Because the program would initially only go through sixth grade, only 42 would be able to participate next year.

The program is an effort to bring homeschool students ? and their state provided school fund money ? back into the public education fold.

School officials claim that with at least 30 students the program could break even, and with more students could even be a revenue source of funds ? to the tune of $4,800 per student ? back to the school system.

The program would be provided free of charge to county students and would also be offered to those outside the county for a tuition cost. The benefit to homeschoolers would be a savings in curriculum costs.

The proposal is to operate the school as part of Big Island Elementary. Students enrolled would have to take Virginia Standards of Learning tests and those scores would be incorporated into the school's results. At least one teacher, depending on enrollment, would be hired to interact with students and parents on the curriculum. Staffing is not expected to be a problem and teachers could be added as enrollment increased.