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Schools to be closed in Roanoke!!!!!

Posted by on Feb. 5, 2009 at 11:36 PM
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 Roanoke school officials struggling to plug a $15 million budget gap are considering closing schools, laying off employees and cutting long-standing programs next year.

Woodrow Wilson Middle School, James Madison Middle School, William Ruffner Middle School, Fishburn Park Elementary School and Raleigh Court Elementary School could be closed or "repurposed," according to a letter to employees signed by the Roanoke School Board and Superintendent Rita Bishop that was to be distributed today.

The school system is also considering cutting 100 teachers from its ranks, roughly 10 percent of the teaching force, through layoffs, resignations or retirements.

Closing schools will save $3 million; cutting teachers will save $6 million, and another $6 million in savings would come from specific programs. For instance, officials are proposing to increase pupil-teacher ratios, eliminate the school system's program to teach children to swim, eliminate the preschool program for 3-year-olds, freeze wages, scale back on summer school, downsize the central administration office and cut money from school principals' funds.

All told, the $15 million budget cuts for next year represent roughly 10 percent of the current year's budget.

"We are operating under the premise that we protect our children first, our employees second, and our facilities last," the letter states. "We will continue to hold that decision-makers will recognize the destructiveness of under-funding education and rectify the situation sooner rather than later."

School systems across Virginia are facing a budget crisis brought on by Gov. Tim Kaine's announcement in December that he plans to cut almost $400 million from state aid to education to balance the state's finances in a disintegrating economy. A slowdown in sales tax receipts combined with decreased local revenues from real estate taxes have also battered school systems. Meanwhile, the cost of utilities, health insurance and retirement contributions continues to rise.

In neighboring Roanoke County, the school system has already identified roughly $5 million in cuts and is planning to unveil another $3 million cuts at a meeting tonight.

Roanoke school officials have already decided to move children from Oakland Intermediate School into Preston Park Primary School and use the Oakland building to house the Noel C. Taylor Learning Academy. Right now, the academy for students with discipline problems operates out of leased space that costs the district $300,000 a year. The school system would not renew the lease once it expires at the end of next year in order to save money.

School officials have also cut back on conference travel, overtime for employees, field trips, food and drink purchases and consulting services to save roughly $1 million this year.

Last month, the school board said it may not be able to offer an early-retirement incentive to employees after this year. The early-retirement program allows employees to collect 20 percent of their pay for working 20 days a year for five years after retiring. It costs about $2 million a year.

As painful as the cuts are, few of the board's proposals are likely to prove as controversial among parents as the suggestion to close schools. School officials have not discussed the details of their proposals but have scheduled a public hearing at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 18 at Lucy Addison Middle School.

The school system has been studying the possibility of closing schools and redrawing its attendance lines to deal with the city's declining enrollment for about a year. Board members said in the letter that while they had hoped to phase in any changes gradually, the budget crisis has forced them into action earlier than they would have liked. Last year, the school board voted to close Forest Park Elementary School and reopen the building as a special academy for middle- and high-school students. That decision sparked an organized effort by parents of the elementary school who complained to civil rights officials at the U.S. Department of Education.

by on Feb. 5, 2009 at 11:36 PM
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