'War's been declared'

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Supervisors won't give extra money to school system; warn against closing schools

By John Barnhart and Tom Wilmoth

Staff Writer

    It appears there won't be an extra $1.1 million for Bedford County schools next year. And if the School Board decides to close any schools, there will be even less. Those were some of the decisions the Bedford County Board of Supervisors made during a budget work session Thursday, prior to Monday night's vote to approve the county budget.
    The Bedford County School Board has adopted a budget that closes Bedford Primary School, consolidating the students in that school with those at Bedford Elementary to form a K-5 school. The BES sixth graders would move over to Bedford Middle School.
    The School Board has also said that if it did not receive the $1.1 million in additional funding from the county, other schools might have to be closed. Body Camp Elementary has been at the top of that list.
    During a special called meeting last week, the School Board, on a 4-3 vote, opted not to rescind its approved budget, after it was warned by the supervisors not to close any schools. That set up Thursday's discussion by the supervisors.
    "We have a lot of things to discuss, a lot of decisions to make," said Supervisors Chairman Annie Pollard when she opened a work session Thursday evening.
    The work involved how to balance the budget without raising the real estate tax rate. Pollard's first action was to ask for consensus on a tax rate, and that consensus was to leave it at the current 50 cents per $100 of assessed value.
    "I will not support a tax rate of 53 cents," said District 5 Supervisor Steve Arrington.
    "I'm at 50," said District 4 Supervisor John Sharp.
    "I'm at 50, so that makes three," said Pollard.
    District 3 supervisor Roger Cheek  also supported 50 cents.
    "I think we have to stay at 51 to pay for all the lawsuits we are going into," commented District 1 Supervisor Dale Wheeler. "We need to lawyer up at some point."
    District 7 Supervisor Gary Lowry initially supported 51 cents. Later, he joined the others to support a 50 cent rate.
    District 2 Supervisor Chuck Neudorfer warned  fellow supervisors that a 50 cent rate meant that they would have to find $2.1 million in additional budget cuts.
    "We will have to be comfortable with the results," he said.
    Most of the four hour work session consisted of wrestling with what those cuts should be. County Administrator Kathleen Guzi reminded the supervisors that they actually only have control over 20 percent of their budget. The rest consists of expenditures that are either mandated by the states or expenditures that they are contractually obligated to make.
    The first cut came to the schools. At an April 4 work session, the supervisors had told Superintendent of Schools Dr. Douglas Schuch and School Board Vice Chairman Julie Bennington that they would not provide the $1.1 million in additional funding that they proposed if the school board closed Bedford Primary School.
    Wheeler  suggested level funding the school division. He also suggested withholding an amount equal to what the school division would save by closing Bedford Primary School "since war's been declared."  Wheeler also suggested holding back an amount equal to what would be saved if Body Camp Elementary School is closed.
    The supervisors ultimately came to a consensus to follow Wheeler's suggestion. The money would remain in the budget for schools, but would not be appropriated if those schools are closed.
    Wheeler said that he wanted to cut the additional $1.1 million "because the chair sat right there and said, if we get the money, we can keep them [the schools] open" even though the school board had no intention of keeping Bedford Primary open.
    "I don't want to reward bad behavior," he said    
    Additional cuts in the county budget had to be made.
    Arrington wanted cuts to parks and recreation put on the table.
    "I do not believe parks and rec is on the same level as emergency services," he said.
    "You cut parks and rec, you might as well fill the jail," commented Lowry.
    Lowry and Sharp suggested looking at cuts to non-governmental agencies.
    "We take it [tax money] by force, then we give it away," said Sharp, referring to government funding for these organizations.
    Wheeler suggested that some cuts could be made to parks without jeopardizing programs. He recommended not spending any additional money for park development until the economy gets better.
    Arrington also suggested shutting down the county's central repair garage. His fellow supervisors did not buy into this idea after Sheldon Cash, who oversees the garage, suggested that the county actually wouldn't save any money by doing this.
    Another idea that Arrington suggested, requiring all county employees to take one furlough day per month. Discussion on this idea bogged down because of the need to keep some facilities, such as the nursing home, staffed 24/7. Discussion on whether to not pay employees for six of the current 12 paid holidays also bogged down.
    Cheek suggested a 1 percent across the board cut, but dropped the idea because it turned out that this would only save $8,000 as it could only be applied to 20 percent of the budget.
    "That's not what I was hoping for," said Cheek.
    Cuts in the contingency fund balance were also discussed.
    Guzi promised to bring the supervisors a budget that will be balanced at a 50 cent tax rate in time for the supervisors meeting Monday night.
    The School Board has not yet set a meeting to discuss what it will do with its budget, should the county supervisors follow through and adopt its budget as proposed Thursday. Any change to the dollar figure approved in the school board budget will have to be addressed and a new budget adopted.
    The School Board, should it keep with its plan to close Bedford Primary, may also see a fight from the the city of Bedford. Bedford City Council met in closed session Tuesday night to discuss the contract between the city and the county for school services, citing pending or potential litigation. There have been hints that the city could challenge closing the school based upon the wording of that contract that says the county would need to give the city a three-year notice if the agreement—which states a school is to operate on College Street— is terminated. Council plans to meet again next week for further discussions.