Body Camp, Primary School could be saved by board

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By Tom Wilmoth

If the budget for Bedford County Public Schools is adopted based on discussions during a five-hour school board work session last Thursday, neither Body Camp Elementary or Bedford Primary School would be closed next year.

    But cuts still have to be made and one school board member has yet to come to a decision on the issue while another wasn't at the meeting to voice an opinion about the proposed school closings.
    At the meeting, school board members began to make wholesale changes to the budget proposal presented a week earlier by School Superintendent Dr. Douglas Schuch. Those changes included not consolidating the proposed schools in the Staunton River and Liberty attendance zones as well as substantially cutting a new program designed to bring online learning to the school system's high school students.

    The school board is also considering reinstating the behind-the-wheel driver’s education program—a proposed cut by Dr. Schuch designed to save $90,000—while increasing the fees students would have to pay. Currently students pay $100 for the driving portion of the program provided while the school system could charge up to $185. Private companies charge around $300 for the driver’s ed behind-the-wheel training.
    The school board is trying to balance an estimated $92.2 million general fund budget for 2011-2012, some $1.3 million less than the current budget. Much of the savings will come from the loss of 67 positions, though additional costs also have to be accounted for, including anticipated higher insurance rates and fuel prices.
    The school board will meet for a special called meeting this Thursday, March 31, to continue its discussion on the budget and potentially approve the proposed 2011-2012 budget. This meeting will begin at 5 p.m. and will be held in the conference room at the School Board Administration Building located at 310 S. Bridge Street.
    During last Thursday’s work session Mark Blankenship, supervisor of testing and planning for BCPS, gave scenarios in which Bedford Elementary School could accommodate the additional K-2 students if Bedford Primary was closed. Under that proposal the school’s sixth grade students would move over to Bedford Middle School, making it a K-5 school.
    Blankenship said the 32 classrooms at the school would be enough for the students the school would have under a consolidated plan, even if transfer students are allowed to remain there. The school board will consider establishing a new transfer policy at a meeting next month and had talked about not allowing any transfers at BES next year.
    “I just feel like this is not the time,” City school board member Mickey VanDerwerker said of the closing of Bedford Primary.
    Board Chairwoman Debbie Hoback said while the move would save money—about $530,000 next year—there was also an educational aspect that could favor the students if all K-5 grades were at the same school. “The discussion wasn’t originally about money,” she said. “There was also discussion about the educational advantages.”
    Hoback joined District 4 board member Gary Hostutler and District 5 board member Julie Bennington in favoring the consolidation of the schools while VanDerwerker, District 3 board member Brad Whorley and District 2 board member Dave Vaden opposed it. District 6 board member Shirley McCabe said she needed more information before she could make a decision and District 1 board member Joy Wright was not at last Thursday’s meeting.
    Dr. Schuch has maintained throughout the budget discussions that closing the two schools is in the best interest of the students. He said students who attend Bedford Primary have to attend four schools in their educational career instead of three, making it harder for them to adjust. “We believe this is better for students,” he said of the proposal to close the school. “Losing a school is a hardship to a community; we still think it’s the right thing.”
    The proposed Blended Learning program for online classes also received considerable discussion. Several board members proposed scaling the program back to allow for a pilot program at one high school next year, while McCabe said it would be unfair to have it in one school and not the others. “Who is going to decide what high school is going to do this?” she asked.
    Hoback suggested Liberty High School might be the best location, since the other two high schools have more access to programs provided in Roanoke or Lynchburg.
    Dr. Schuch said students need to be able to take classes online, adding that it’s what they’ll be doing as they pursue their future careers.
    The board did show support for more than $200,000 which will go towards replacing some of the more than 4,400 older computers now being used by students. Technology director Ed Hoisington said that will be important because in the next few years all of the students’ testing will be done on computers, including at the elementary level.
    As for the proposed closing of Body Camp Elementary—the students would be split between Huddleston and Moneta Elementary schools—Dr. Schuch said the move would allow for better learning opportunities for the students and show responsible management. “I simply don’t think it’s in the best interest of the students in the long run,” he said of keeping the school open.
    Vaden disagreed. “I’m totally against the plan,” he said.
    But Hostutler supported the idea, adding that the school system’s employees are having to carry the burden of the budget shortfalls by not receiving raises, while Body Camp, which has 153 students, remains open. An estimated $330,000 would be saved if the school was closed. “I don’t think we can afford it,” he said of keeping the school open. “To continue to spend that kind of money on a small school is irresponsible.”
    He suggested employees should receive a 1 percent pay increase at a total cost of about $580,000. He said that could be balanced by having school employees pay a portion of any increase in health insurance costs.
    Only Hostutler and Bennington openly supported closing Body Camp, while a majority of the other board members at the meeting wanted it to remain open.