The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors and the Albemarle County School Board met Wednesday to discuss the school board’s capital budget for fiscal years 2024-2028, an especially challenging issue as county schools reach capacity.
More funding for the capital budget—separate from the funding schools need to continue to operate—is necessary to boost schools’ capacity. Eight of the division’s schools are overcrowded, the division’s spokesperson Phil Giaramita told The Daily Progress in November.
“Investments are needed to support our students,” said Maya Kumazawa, the budget director for Albemarle schools.
The need will become only more pronounced as enrollment grows: the division expects a 10% increase in the student population for the next 10 years. Enrollment dipped during the pandemic, but it’s begun to grow again. Albemarle County high schools currently have 180 more students than their campuses were built to accommodate. By 2033, the division expects that number to more than triple to 592.
In the next five years, more than half of Albemarle students are set to attend schools that are full to bursting: at 95% capacity or more.
County schools have asked the board for $318 million to pay for capital projects. Much of that would go toward renovations that could up the number of students a school can take, as well as buying land and starting construction for new elementary schools.
Still, those schools are a long time coming. One of them won’t start construction until fiscal year 2027, according to the division’s capital improvement program request.
“We’re not pouring wet cement, we’re still mixing the ingredients,” said Andy Bowman, the Board of Supervisors’ budget chief.
Some schools are especially overtaxed. Mountain View Elementary School, for example, has about 700 students. Its capacity is just below 600 students. Temporary relief has come by way of classroom trailers, but now there isn’t enough room on the property to add any more, according to a letter from the Capital Improvement Plan, or CIP, Advisory Committee to the Board of Supervisors.
As school buildings have to accommodate more students, they deteriorate more quickly, Kumazawa said.
“Capacity and building conditions often go hand in hand,” Kumazawa said.
The newest schools in the division were built roughly 20 years ago. The oldest schools were constructed more than 80 years ago. Albemarle High School was built to serve 800 students in 1953. It currently enrolls about 2,000.
Current CIP funding has granted $8 million across four years for high school renovations. The Long Range Planning Advisory Committee said $106 million is necessary to repair and renovate the division’s schools, according to school board member Jonno Alcaro.
“That’s going to take 53 years,” Alcaro said. “Hopefully, I’ll be celebrating my 123rd birthday.”
For school board member Katrina Callsen, renovations are necessary for students’ and staff’s safety.
“It’s like, why do I need a fancy building? But that’s not what it’s about,” Callsen said.
School board member Kate Acuff said the hallways at Albemarle High School, for example, could pose a risk if too many people need to leave the building quickly.
Wednesday’s work session was the first of several meetings where school board members and the Board of Supervisors will try to negotiate a capital budget.
“We can do anything you want. We just can’t do everything,” said supervisor Bea LaPisto-Kirtley. “We really have to look at what your priorities are.”
The Board of Supervisors emphasized that it would like to fund everything the school division is asking for but noted that is must have a balanced budget.
“Philosophically, if I could write a check and stroke it in schools, I would do it in a heartbeat,” said supervisor Ned Gallaway.
Gallaway believes a tax increase will be necessary to pay for what the community wants and needs.
“I don’t think any of us are afraid of the political will it takes,” Gallaway said. “I would use this opportunity as a rallying cry for both school board members and supervisors to lobby the General Assembly,” to allow the county to increase sales tax.
“I’m very glad we’re not finalizing today,” said supervisor Jim Andrews.
The matter won’t be settled until May 2023, when the Board of Supervisors makes its budget decisions and the school board adopts that budget.