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Wrestling with the budget bear

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By John Barnhart

    Last month I was watching the news on WDBJ when a story came on featuring a teacher who was whining about her pay. I don’t recall where she taught. It wasn’t in Bedford County. What got my attention is that she seemed to think she just couldn’t make ends meet on $38,000 a year. She complained about only having $2,400 a month left after taxes. Maybe somebody should have asked her how she expects people who don’t make $2,400 a month before taxes to survive. Somebody should have also asked her how she expects those folks — there’s a lot of us out there and even more since the recession — are going to be able to pay higher taxes so that she can get a higher salary. According to the story, she quit teaching to go back to school to study nursing because she said she can make $62,000 a year as a nurse.

    I suppose, when the school board starts developing the next school budget, that the teachers’ union is going to lobby for a pay raise. I hope they keep in mind the fact that developing the budget for the next fiscal year is going to be a nightmare.
    When they developed this year’s budget, the school board used $2 million in federal “stimulus” money to plug a hole. That “stimulus” money won’t be there next year and the supervisors will not be able to make up the difference. I believe that they could make up $1 million, but not $2 million. Unless substantially more money comes from the state, the school board is going to have to make serious cuts. There simply won’t be money for teacher pay raises, unless the school board wants to cut something else in order to give the teachers fatter paychecks.
    When the election in November is over, I’m not sure if I will want to offer the winners in the school board races my congratulations, or my condolences. That’s because bridging next year’s budget canyon isn’t the only huge challenge they face. Bedford Middle School is overcrowded.
    A middle school consists of grades six through eight. Bedford Middle School, however, doesn’t have room for the sixth grade. School officials were able to shoe-horn sixth graders from Bedford Elementary in, but sixth-graders from Montvale, Big Island and Thaxton remain at these elementary schools.
    The problem is that a new middle school will cost an estimated $40 million to $50 million. This is the figure Julie Bennington, who represents District 5 on the school board, quoted to me in a candidate interview. Bedford County is already paying off debts for building three elementary schools in the 90’s as well as renovations on all three high schools, including. The county also had to carry out a major renovation of the courthouse, which included a substantial expansion.
    Bedford County simply cannot afford to take on the amount of debt that it will take to build a new middle school. The school board is going to have to find a less expensive solution.
    The school board members elected in November, at least two of whom will be new, will also need to oppose any effort to close Bedford Primary School. A new wing of classrooms would have to be added to Bedford Elementary School to accommodate the children currently attending Bedford Primary. Asking the county to take on more construction debt at this time, while leaving a perfectly good school building vacant, would be outrageous, especially in the tough economic times that everybody is facing.
    There are certainly some people in Bedford County who can afford to pay higher taxes. In fact, there are some who could afford to pay a lot more in taxes. Most can’t, however, and some would really get hammered by a hike in the real estate tax, the tax on which Bedford County must rely for most of its local revenue.
    School board members need to keep this in mind when they climb down into the pit to wrestle with the budget bear next year.