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Board considers closing schools

One thing was on the minds of School Board members at their monthly meeting on Thursday: the millions of dollars Suffolk schools could lose in this year’s budget cycle.

In light of an expected decrease in state funds to support education, board members asked Superintendent Milton Liverman during Thursday’s School Board meeting to explore the potential benefits of closing Mount Zion, Robertson and Florence Bowser Elementary schools and creating a retirement incentive program.

A local schools budget already reeling from the effects of the recession took a staggering blow this week with the news that Gov. Bob McDonnell would allow a change to a funding formula that is expected to cost Suffolk $4 million. School administrators also are concerned with the effects on the division of a state budget gap that legislators are working to close.

Liverman has warned of deep cuts to — or the complete loss of — many programs not related to Standards of Learning and jobs if the expected revenue reductions are not somehow balanced out.

To save programs and money, School Board member Enoch Copeland asked Liverman how much money could be saved by closing Robertson and Florence Bowser Elementary schools. Both schools have student populations of less than 300 students, and the state does not fund a full-time principal at either facility.

“We need to make tough decisions based on the financial report and inasmuch as these schools are small in nature and the principals are not being compensated for by the state, it would be good to look at the savings for the schools,” Copeland said on Friday.

Immediately after Copeland’s request, member Thelma Hinton asked Liverman to estimate how much money could be saved by closing Mt. Zion, which has a student population of 265.

“Closing schools anywhere would save money by eliminating duplicate jobs, such as principals, nurse, secretary, bookkeeper, media specialist, art, music, PE/health and custodian,” Suffolk Public Schools spokesperson Bethanne Bradshaw stated in an email on Friday.

“All of these positions might not be closed, and there might be others considered as the study progresses. Utility costs would be a savings, but transportation costs may well increase as students travel further.”

School officials were unable to say on Friday what would be the fate of a new school slated to replace Southwestern and Robertson Elementary schools if Robertson were to close.

Hinton also asked Liverman to prepare numbers on a retirement incentive program for employees with 30 or more years in the system.

“Right now, we’re top heavy,” Hinton said in a later interview. “And, it’s not just teachers and nurses and such. It’s administration, too.”

The board will have a work session March 4 to review the budget in its entirety and to discuss alternative money-saving possibilities.