Vote to delay school closing fails

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By Tom Wilmoth

A request to delay a decision on closing either Moneta Elementary School or Body Camp Elementary school failed on two separate votes Thursday night during a meeting of the Bedford County School Board.

District 2 board member Jason Johnson proposed the delay, stating the board needed time to explore an offer by local developer George Aznavorian to enter into a private-public partnership to fix the failed septic system drain fields at Moneta Elementary. Johnson also said the board needed to explore the safety issues at Thaxton Elementary that a state-mandated efficiency study stated needed immediate attention.

The first vote failed on a 2-5vote with only Johnson and District 3 board member Dr. John Hicks Jr. supporting Johnson's request. Board members Gary Hostutler, Kevin Willis, Julie Bennington and Richard Downey voted against the motion.

A second vote on the issue at the end of the meeting, requested by District 7 board member Kevin Willis, failed on a 3-4 vote, with Willis joining Johnson and Hicks in the effort to delay a decision on whether to close one of the two schools, both located in the District 2 area.


The public speaks out

The votes came after several speakers, during public comment time at the meeting, asked that the two community schools not be closed.

Rhonda Ellis asked the school board to enter into a partnership with the two school communities to work to save schools in those communities.

John Thompson said in talks with members of the General Assembly, he doesn't believe any schools need to be closed. The efficiency study, mandated by the state, recommended closing two elementary schools, one in the Staunton River Zone and one in the Liberty Zone, in an effort to save $8 million over the next five years. School officials believe following the recommendations of the study are essential to the school system continuing to receive a more favorable local composite index—the formula used to determine state funding for a school district—and the additional $6 million that LCI produces. But Thompson stated he had been told by state Sen. Steve Newman that wasn't the case.

“There is no edict form the General Assembly to close schools,” Thompson said. “Our understanding is no school has to be closed.”

Russell Baskett, executive director of the Smith Mountain Lake Good Neighbors organization, asked that Moneta Elementary School not be closed because of the close partnership between the school and the organization. “Most of our work is during the summer,” Baskett said of the group that works with children who are rising first through sixth graders from six elementary schools in Bedford and Franklin counties. These children are from families with limited resources and the organization provides summer enrichment programs at no cost to families. The children attend full-day, five days per week enrichment camps lasting four weeks.

A large percentage of the students in the program come from Moneta Elementary and the school has served as a host for several years. The organization is also considering locating its offices near the school which could help in its effort to provide after-school programs.

“Keep the doors of this valuable community resource open,” he said.


A public-private partnership

Aznavorian has been working for the past couple of weeks on a potential public-private partnership to help reduce the costs of fixing the septic system issue at the school. This year two of the schools three drain fields for the system failed and the school system was given a price tag of more than $400,000 to fix that.

Aznavorian said contractors he works with believe the cost can be less and he proposed having businesses on the north side of the railroad tracks help fund one third of the cost, so they could join into a system that would be connected to the public sewer system through the Bedford Regional Water Authority. He said, at a cost of around $300,000, the school system, Bedford County and the businesses could split the cost three ways to fund the connection to a pump station in downtown Moneta.

Aznavorian, who developed Downtown Moneta and the Mayberry Hills subdivision, said the school is vital to the area.

Rosemary Drennen, a retired teacher and volunteer at Moneta Elementary, said the school provides a good opportunity for retirees in the area to volunteer at the school. She works with the Moneta Garden Club which has sponsored several planting programs at Moneta, one which recently one a national award. “It would be a shame for our program to be deleted if this school has to be closed,” she said.

Barry Tosh, a former president of the Body Camp PTA, said it is important for the public to get behind the school system and push the Board of Supervisors for additional funding for schools. “I'm not sure how we're surviving up to this point,” he said of the cuts the school system has suffered.

Don Ferguson, the current PTA president, urged the school board to make its decision on which school to close in District 2 objectively. He said just because one community might have more resources than another, that shouldn't be a reason to keep one school open over another.

“The children of one community should not be valued over another,” Ferguson said. “One community should not be able to use their resources (to influence the board). It's just not right.”

He said the lives that were given on D-Day by the local Bedford Boys were given, in part, so that one group wouldn't be favored over another. “We're going to fight for what is right and fight to save Body Camp Elementary,” he said.

Connie Thomason agreed, stating that Body Camp Elementary had helped her son. “This is our beloved school and family,” she said. “We beg for it to remain open.”


A difficult decision

Hostutler, the board chairman, said after the comments that making a decision to close a school is not easy. “It's very complicated,” he said.

He said the school board has been faced with a significant reduction in funds the past few years. “It's cut, cut, cut, cut, cut,” he said. “It's difficult to work through this process when you're on a shoestring (budget).”

He urged those in attendance, a packed house, to keep their passion and to support the school system before the county supervisors in asking for additional funds.

District 1 board member Richard Downey agreed, asking where the public outcry was when the school system had to decide to cut 46 teaching positions this year because of a lack of funds. “There are other things on the table that need to be addressed too,” he said.

Johnson reiterated his comments, at the end of the meeting, that community schools are the heart and soul of a community, even if they might not be the most efficient to operate. He said the results they produce can't be quantified in dollars or on ledgers.He said a decision should not be made on what might seem most economical today. “Let's make sure we have all of the facts on the table,” he said.

Staunton River Zone community residents will get another chance to voice their opinions at a public hearing scheduled for Monday night, June 2, 7 p.m., at Staunton River High School. The school board is scheduled to meet to discuss the decision to close a school next Thursday, June 5, at 6 p.m. in the school board conference room.