By Aila Boyd

Botetourt County Public Schools held a Budget Committee meeting last Thursday before its monthly School Board meeting.

The original plan was to hold both meetings at the normal location, the school administration building in Fincastle, but they were relocated to the auditorium at Central Academy Middle School. The move was prompted by a desire to accommodate the larger than usual crowd who wanted to observe the Budget Committee meeting and voice concerns about the potential reduction of a career and technical education agriculture teacher during the public comments portion of the School Board meeting. In total, 21 individuals spoke at the meeting.

Michael Beahm, chairman of the School Board, noted that out of the 24 budgets that he has been a part of during his time on the School Board, he has never seen a larger crowd at a budget session.

Although the majority of the Budget Committee meeting was a rehash of items that had been discussed at the March 6 meeting, there were some breakthroughs.

With several ideas being considered, the one that seemed to elicit the most praise from members of the School Board, particularly Vice-Chairman Scott Swortzel, was the idea to have one full-time agriculture teacher at Lord Botetourt High School, another at James River High School, and to divide the veterinary technology courses that are currently being offered at Botetourt Technical Education Center between the two high schools.

Swortzel said that he couldn’t believe it was that simple, adding that the idea to do so wasn’t discussed at the March 6 meeting.

Mike Ketron, supervisor of CTE and adult education, noted that because the veterinary technology courses are part of the agriculture curriculum, teachers who are qualified to teach traditional agriculture courses would be qualified to teach those as well.

He explained that following the meeting, he and the rest of the administration were tasked with coming up with options for how to maintain teachers at both of the high schools, adding that it will ultimately be dependent upon personnel and enrollment numbers.

The idea to potentially reduce the number of agriculture teachers in the county from three to two was originally sparked by a $609, 528 personnel budget deficit that will be caused by proposed salary corrections and salary scale increases in order to keep Botetourt County competitive when it comes to the recruitment and retention of teachers.

“If we don’t do anything, we’ll stagnate and be at the bottom of the list,” John Busher, superintendent, said while comparing the salaries offered to teachers by Botetourt County to the ones being offered by surrounding counties.

Other proposed personnel budget reductions include one elementary regular education teacher and six secondary regular education teachers. It was explained by Jill Green, director of human resources, during the Budget Committee meeting that the reason why the secondary career and technical education agriculture teacher position was not included with the other six secondary teacher positions is because it’s a 220-day contract, unlike regular education teacher contracts which are only 200 days long.

The reason given for why one of the agriculture teacher positions was selected to possibly be eliminated was because of declining enrollment numbers, something that Swortzel said he wished members of the School Board would have been alerted to earlier on.

“Ag classes in general have seen a downward trend in students signing up,” Ketron said.

This year, a total of 87 students are in agriculture classes at James River High School. Currently, 56 students are signed up for agriculture classes for the upcoming year.

At Lord Botetourt, 108 students signed up for agriculture classes for the upcoming school year.

During class registration for next year, students at Lord Botetourt High School signed up for the following classes:

  • Introduction to Ag: 24 students
  • Operating a Farm Business: 2 students
  • Ag Systems: 4 students
  • Ag Production: 3 students
  • Ag Management: 8 students
  • Farm to Table Food Service: 38 students
  • Small Engine Repair 1: 31 students
  • Small Engine Repair 2: 27

During class registration for next year, students at James River High School signed up for the following classes:

  • Ag Systems: 13 students
  • Ag Production: 12 students
  • Ag Management: 0
  • Operating a Farm Business: 6
  • Introduction to Ag: 16
  • Small Engine Repair 1: 14
  • Small Engine Repair 2: 10
  • Farm to Table Food Service: 3

It was noted that not all of the classes “made” due to low enrollment. Also, Green mentioned that some of the numbers represent “duplicates,” students who signed up for more than one agriculture class.

Ketron offered that a teacher is only able to teach six classes per year due to scheduling restraints.

Beahm said that he feels the school division needs to have a better understanding of why the enrollment numbers have decreased. “It cannot be just because that much interest was lost in one year, recognizing some other issues at James River,” he said.

“I don’t think demographically the students are that much different between the past two or three years,” he said. “I feel strongly there’s a lack of support in the building.” He went on to note that he has heard from former students who said that they were discouraged from enrolling in agriculture classes at James River. He added that if the program is promoted and encouraged the way that he feels it should be, and the enrollment numbers are still as low as they currently are, then the decision to reduce the program should be considered.

Busher disagreed, noting that he doesn’t feel that students have been discouraged from taking agriculture classes in the past.

Ex officio member of the Budget Committee Botetourt County Supervisor Richard Bailey, of the Fincastle District, explained that agriculture was one of the nine areas of focus that the Board of Supervisors came up with at a recent strategic planning session.

“If we do not have a dedicated resource at James River to manage and guide that program, it will disappear,” Swortzel said. “Nobody wants to hang out with a group that has no leader.”

“I want a full-time [agriculture] teacher at both of the high schools,” Beahm said later on, echoing Swortzel’s sentiment.

At the end of the Budget Committee meeting, Beahm said that additional cuts may be necessary in the coming years due to a decline in enrollment numbers. When “cuts” are made, he said, they should be “equal and fair.”

Another Budget Committee meeting was held this morning at 8 a.m. A public hearing on the proposed budget is scheduled for next Thursday at 5:30 p.m. at the school administration building.

The next School Board meeting will be held on April 11 at 6:30 at the school administration building.

Several of the comments made by speakers at the School Board meeting are included below:

Denise Settle of Blue Ridge, whose daughter attends Lord Botetourt High School, said, “I want to tell you I did not expect to get so emotional over a board meeting. What I need everyone to understand and remember is that both of these schools need independent teachers at both facilities— not one teacher traveling between facilities. That does not build strong classroom interaction with the teacher and their students.”

Faith Settle, the current president of the Lord Botetourt FFA Chapter, started her comments by reciting the FFA motto: “Learning to do, doing to learn, earning to live, living to serve.” She said that she started taking agriculture classes in the ninth grade, a small engine repair class. She explained that aside from learning how to repair a lawnmower engine, it taught her trouble shooting, fractions, how to read a ruler, and how to manage money. “You can ask anyone from my chapter who knew me at the beginning of ninth grade; I was quiet, nervous, the last one to raise my hand, and I was a follower. My opinions were not my own,” she said. “Without Mr. Byrd (the agriculture teacher at Lord Botetourt High School) helping me every step of the way, I would not be currently talking to you now. Without the Ag program at our school as a year-round option, not only students, but the community members, will be affected.”

Katherine Carter, former 4-H positive youth development agent for Botetourt County, said, “As we looked at the proposed cuts, one thing that struck me was that there were no cuts at the administration level. As a 4-H agent, when I was forced to do without or my youth doing without, I did without. Maybe that’s not a big deal, but when I look at the number of administrators that we have in front of us this evening presenting their information, I noticed that that was nowhere on this list of potential cuts.”