With costs going up and funding going down wish lists are out

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As the holiday season picks up, everyone's making a wish list. But as budget time approaches for county schools, "needs" will be much more important than "wants" this season.

There are always new projects to pursue, new technology to embrace and new buildings that need constructed. Hands are already being extended in hopes of snagging additional dollars.

Such was the case Thursday night as the Bedford County Board of Supervisors and the Bedford County School Board got together for the final quarterly meeting of the year. Financial concerns were at the forefront of just about all that was discussed, from teacher salaries to construction needs, maintenance concerns to rising fuel prices.

First up was a presentation by the Bedford County Education Association on teacher salaries. The bottom line, according to the BCEA: Those salaries need to be higher.

And the group of teachers assembled in support Thursday made some good points.

Bedford County lags behind most surrounding communities in teacher salaries. A new teacher will make some $1,250 less than the average new teacher in surrounding jurisdictions; Bedford County is ninth out of 11 localities included in a study by the BCEA. That trend continues to increase throughout the career of an educator, with teachers having 30 years on the job making some $3.367 less annually.

Over a career, that difference adds up.

What that means, as can be seen by the numbers, is a higher turnover rate. A teacher who can make more at a system next door has little incentive to stay. In some localities such as Amherst, which at one time lagged behind Bedford County, area school systems have made strides to bridge the gap. Local educators are wanting Bedford County to do likewise.

The BCEA is proposing that the school system commit to raising teacher salaries by 5 percent each of the next three years. By making the presentation to county and school officials at the same time the group attempted to make its point to both boards.

But there's much more involved.

Members of the school administration and school board also used Thursday's meeting to bring up other financial issues: buildings in need of repair, classrooms that need to be moved from outside mobiles to a regular building (meaning new construction), higher fuel costs, unfunded requests and lower state appropriations than anticipated.

All of this adds up to more hands in the county bucket looking for local dollars. Either cuts will have to be made elsewhere or more dollars must be generated through a tax increase.

That's not likely to happen.

Only out-going supervisor Andy Dooley made any comments about the possibility of raising taxes to help pay for school improvements and higher teacher salaries. It's not an issue likely to grow legs among a majority of the supervisors who will help formulate next year's county budget. That budget includes a large portion which goes to the schools.

The county position has been, and will likely remain this: "We give the school board an amount of money for it to divide up as it deems fit. We don't dictate to the school system how to spend its dollars."

The school system's response can be summed up: "We're not funding many current needs; we'll need more dollars if we're going to catch up on projects and teacher salaries."

Several school board members expressed appreciation to the BCEA for its presentation. Whether the proposal will realistically be considered is less probable.

For its part, the school administration suggested funding a 3 percent increase next year, in addition to the 1.5 percent step increase most teachers receive annually.

But numbers will have to be crunched and cuts are going to have to be made ? anywhere possible. One area the school board will have to look at is in the area of class sizes. Some classes are just too small.

When two kindergarten classes at one county elementary school have fewer students combined than just one kindergarten class in another school, changes should probably be made. And next year, enrollment in the county is projected to decline ? reversing a trend which had seen steady growth up until this past year.

There are no easy answers. Everything must be on the table for cuts and the true needs for additional spending will have to be identified. There isn't likely to be room for any spending wish lists this year.