After months of study, the Albemarle County school division has a plan to free up space at Mountain View Elementary — building a new school — but whether that project will be funded is uncertain.
The school system hasn’t built a new school since 2002 and is now eyeing the construction of two new buildings to address overcrowding and student enrollment growth. Instead of building new schools, the division has opted for stop-gap measures such as expansion and redistricting.
“We’ve heard loud and clear that these communities want long-term solutions,” chief operating officer Rosalyn Schmitt said in an interview Wednesday. “It’s time to have that conversation.”
The Board of Supervisors has the final say on which projects to include in the capital budget and overall five-year capital improvement plan, or the CIP. An advisory committee made up of two supervisors, two School Board members, a planning commissioner and community member will meet Friday to make a recommendation on what projects should be included. One new elementary is already included the draft five-year plan.
Until the two new schools are funded, she said they’ll continue to find either temporary or short-term solutions, such as classroom trailers.
“If you look at the northern feeder pattern, it’s something we’re going to continue to monitor,” she said. “We’re already utilizing mobile classrooms at Baker-Butler, and we’ll be OK for a couple of years. But again, something’s got to be done at some point.”
The new elementary school for Mountain View would be in addition to a planned six-classroom expansion that could cost $500,000 to $1.73 million above the $6.2 million already allocated to the project because of current market conditions. Board members and school officials said both were necessary because of the current overcrowding of the school and uncertainty about whether a new elementary school will be built.
The opening of a new school is at least five years away, officials said at last week’s meeting when the School Board was briefed on the recommendation. The division and its consultants have been studying long-term solutions for Mountain View throughout the summer and fall.
The School Board will formally sign off on the recommendation at Thursday’s meeting.
“I would encourage the addition and the new school,” said Ellen Osbourne, the school board member representing the Scottsville district, which includes Mountain View. “… While we have the intention to have a new school by 2026-27 school year, I think we all know how those things work out. Something that’s on a five-year plan then turns out to be seven years and down the road like that.”
The county’s draft five-year capital improvement program presented to the advisory committee already includes $131 million for new projects — about 59% of which would go toward school-related projects, according to a county presentation at last week’s committee meeting. For the school division, That includes the new $32 million high school center, an elementary school, and a $4.5 million division-wide indoor air quality project that would be largely paid for by federal funds.
The new elementary school in the draft plan is a placeholder project. The School Board currently wants to build two — the one in the Mountain View area and another in the northern part of the county — but hasn’t decided which it would build first. The northern elementary school is estimated to cost $40.2 million while the Mountain View area school would be about $42 million, according to a School Board presentation.
The long-term plan to boost capacity at the elementary level also includes $7.5 million to buy land in the western area of the county for that feeder pattern. That money was not part of the draft CIP.
During an advisory committee meeting last Friday, board member Kate Acuff pushed for funding for two new elementary schools in the CIP.
“Pushing off the second elementary now, we’ll be facing the same issue down the road, so I will be in favor of doing it sooner,” she said.
The county has the capacity, but not cash on hand, to borrow an additional $137 million and to stay within its borrowing guidelines, county staff said last week.
A division’ committee recently identified $196.2 million worth of projects over the next five years, which Acuff acknowledged was unrealistic.
“But we need to start making progress on those schools because it has a direct impact on the learning of our students,” Acuff said.
Currently, Mountain View is out of space, principal Cyndi Wells told board members, even after the installation of an eight-classroom trailer unit. Wells said that teachers don’t have anywhere to eat lunch and there aren’t designated classrooms for art and music teachers.
Mountain View’s capacity is 624, which does not include preschool. In the 2019-20 school year, 770 students enrolled, including preschoolers. That figure has dipped to 684 this school year, but enrollment is expected to peak at 791 in 2025-26, according to the division’s consultants.
New school for Mountain View community
At the end of last school year, the school system considered moving fifth-graders at Mountain View to Walton Middle School because of overcrowding at the school. However, officials backed off that plan after parents pushed back and called for a long-term solution to the school’s capacity issues.
RRMM Architects recommended the new elementary school with a capacity of 400 to 450 students located in Mountain View’s attendance zone as that long-term solution, according to the recommendation.
“So Mountain View would become two schools,” said Jack Clark with RRMM.
As part of the long-term study, the team looked at other options such as building a new 800-student school to entirely replace Mountain View, constructing a larger addition, moving grades to Walton Middle School or expanding Red Hill Elementary and then redistricting students.
Clark said that a new school was the preferred option among the school community members who responded to a survey.
One option not considered was whether to reopen Yancey Elementary, which the School Board voted to close in May 2021. The Esmont facility has since been turned into a community center and is about a 15-mile drive from Mountain View.
Schmitt said Mountain View’s enrollment is concentrated in the north end of its attendance zone, along Fifth Street and Avon Street Extended, which is also one of the county’s development areas.
“It’s not where the students are,” Schmitt said of Yancey.
Consultants hired by the school division expect Mountain View’s attendance zone to grow by 176 students, but historically, the school system has underprojected the Mountain View area. Schmitt said at the meeting that predicting enrollment post-pandemic has proven to be “extremely challenging.”
“What we were trying to show is that there’s no room for error in that projection either,” Schmitt said of the consultant’s numbers. “If those projections were higher, we are out of space without the addition.”
Mountain View is the second-largest elementary school in the county, after Brownsville, and one of the most diverse.
If the county funds the new elementary school in the upcoming capital budget, the building could be open in at least five years or in the 2026-27 school year.
Schmitt said that the five-year timeframe would give the school division time to be thoughtful about the design and hear from the community about the new building.
“Five years is pretty sobering,” she said. “That’s a whole generation — a whole cohort — of kids that we need to accommodate and make sure that we have adequate space for, which is why the addition is being talked about.”
The planned expansion, which would bring the school’s capacity to 738 students, would include a two-story classroom addition, an expanded cafeteria and improvements to the parking lot and outdoor play areas.
“I’m looking at where our children are right now and wanting the most equitable experience for them and for our teachers as possible,” Wells said, advocating for the addition. “Even with the gift of the eight classroom learning pod that we have, we still don’t have enough room at Mountain View.”
Some board members initially questioned the need for the addition if a new school is in the works; however, most were swayed by the end of the discussion.
“One thing I’d hate to have happened because we’re going to be dividing up all the students that are attending Mountain View, but is to send half of them to a brand new facility with state of the art stuff and leave the other half in school that doesn’t have any touch ups,” board member Katrina Callsen said. “For that reason, I do think it’s important to continue doing at least some improvements there.”