The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors and School Board largely agreed Wednesday afternoon that addressing school capacity issues should be top priority when considering future construction projects, but what exactly that entails and how those projects would be funded was not clear.
Wednesday’s joint meeting was light on specifics and focused on initial planning and assumptions that will drive discussions about which projects should be included and funded in the upcoming five-year capital improvement program.
An advisory committee made up of two Supervisors, two School Board members and a community member will meet several times before the end of 2021 to discuss the CIP and make a recommendation about which projects should be funded.
School Board member Jonno Alcaro asked for more information about the financial capacity of the county to pay for its capital projects, which was not answered by staff.
“I have an interest in knowing what the cap is on the debt that the county can incur, and where is the amount of the debt currently,” he said. “In other words, what’s the space in between? We’re not gonna spend it all, but what are we looking at?”
County budget officials said the five-year CIP should emphasize flexibility, especially since the county is updating its strategic and comprehensive plans next year. County staff have previously said the Comprehensive Plan update process will include significant community engagement that can be used to help inform how the county invests its resources.
Additionally, rising construction prices and supply chain issues will likely loom over capital planning for the coming fiscal year, county staff said.
Meanwhile, the School Board presented $196.2 million in new projects that it says are needed to address overcrowding, safety concerns and update facilities. The top three projects are a new, $32 million high school center, an undetermined project to address capacity issues at Mountain View Elementary and a new $40 million elementary school.
In the last eight years, the county spent an average of $35 million a year on capital projects, according to information presented at the board meeting. In recent years, the county has started to ramp up capital spending and spent a projected $147 million in fiscal year 2021, which ended in June. About $53 million is tied up in projects that have not yet started construction, according to the presentation.
Alcaro said that because the amount of money spent on capital projects has not been higher on an annual basis, the county and school system continue to fall behind.
“I wish we had a lot more money and a lot more ability because the reality is we have a lot of need in this community,” School Board member David Oberg said. “… We have to do something because the reality is we’ve been kicking the can down the road for years and years and years. We built a beautiful, wonderful community. People want to move here and because people want to move here, we need to have the infrastructure to take care of them.”
Elected officials on both boards expressed a willingness to loosen the purse strings on the capital budget and find money to move projects forward.
“I do think that it would behoove our two boards to think about using our triple A bond rating to float bonds more often than every 40 years,” Supervisor Diantha McKeel said.
In 2016, voters overwhelmingly approved a $35 million bond referendum, which funded an expansion of Woodbrook Elementary and other projects. That was the first school-related referendum in the county in 40 years.
School Board members have advocated for more of such votes. The county does not need a referendum to issue bonds, but officials noted Wednesday that the backing of voters makes decisions such as raising tax rates easier.
Board member Kate Acuff said that it seems like the school system is always playing catch up with school capacity. She urged both boards to “be bold” in finding ways to improve school buildings.
“And we rarely get to the other things like addressing the needs for renovation and modernization of our facilities,” she said. “The current facility average for our facilities is over 50 years, and that needs to be addressed to have learning spaces that are designed for the way that we teach now.”
County staff are planning to take a different approach to financing capital projects. For the coming fiscal year, staff members are not initially planning on a real estate tax rate increase. Before the pandemic, officials have weighed an annual one-cent tax rate increase to pay for capital projects. That’s off the table for now, according to the presentation.
Board chairman Ned Gallaway said that new schools have to be in play during discussions about school capacity, but he also wanted more information about where the new buildings would go and how big they would be. He added that the stronger long-term solution to the issue is finding the right size for new schools.
“But moving [forward] we certainly can learn that in the past we’ve made decisions based on cutting projects to save money, and it’s not gotten us anywhere over the last 10 years so we’re still trying to work out of that,” Gallaway said. “So moving forward, I hope we can make the decisions that when we put the capital projects in place, they’re going to have longer term staying power for us to solve the capacity issues around the county.”
Gallaway said later in the discussion that school capacity is one of several issues that comes in land-use conversations. In recent years, residents opposed to new developments have cited overcrowding in area schools as a reason that such projects shouldn’t be allowed to move forward.
But, the board also hears concerns about roads, parks and greenspace. The board also is working to implement its climate action plan and housing policies, which would be part of the CIP process.
“While we’re all supportive of the school’s needs and what’s going to be needed to hit the capacity, we also have other things that need to be addressed in this,” Gallaway said. “Prioritizing and timing what happens is always a difficult thing to maneuver through but that’s exactly what’s in front of us.”
Schools Superintendent Matt Haas said that his team was ready to work with county staff members to figure out how to accomplish boosting school capacity.
“The good news is, at least from what I was hearing, everyone recognizes the need for increasing our school’s capacity in a way that truly meets our student, family, community and employee’s needs,” he said.