SHORT PUMP — The Charlottesville school division would have to spend $11 million to maintain Walker Upper Elementary and Buford Middle School as they currently are, but VMDO Architects walked the city School Board through what the future could be in the first public presentation about the planned reconfiguration of the two schools.
The School Board and VMDO Architects dug into the details of six conceptual designs in a wide-ranging presentation at Friday’s board retreat in Short Pump. Reconfiguration, which has been discussed for a decade, would add sixth grade to Buford, move the fifth grade to the elementary schools and convert Walker into an early childhood education center.
Michelle Amt, an architect with VMDO, said the project would affect students at two points that can be the most impactful places in the school system.
“We need to remember that these buildings are shaped by the 1960s ideas of equity, and they were shaped by older versions of pedagogical thinking,” Amt said.
“… When we talk about equity in our community, we’re talking about creating spaces where our kids feel supported, they feel important, that they feel empowered. … Our current facilities aren’t doing that, so we’re pretty excited about the potential to really provide the community this asset for the next generation, so it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
The conceptual designs are the first step in the process to determine the project’s cost. VMDO will begin reaching out to community members next week to get more feedback on potential designs and to hear what students and staff want to see in the buildings.
The City Council and the School Board are expected to decide in October on whether to move forward on the project, according to a timeline presented at the meeting. The second decision — approval of schematic designs — is slated for March, following the 2021 election.
“We hope this is the first day of a process that gets us to yes,” said Wyck Knox, a VMDO architect.
In March, the city awarded VMDO the contract for design services. The $1.47 million contract includes an updated capacity study and programming documents for each site, as well as three different conceptual designs.
The board will meet with the council Wednesday to discuss the reconfiguration project. Currently, $50 million has been included in the city’s five-year capital improvement program for Fiscal Year 2025 as a placeholder for the program.
Some councilors and board members have been meeting with city staff and VMDO about the project as part of a working group.
“One of the conversations we’ve had in the working group and with council is whether $50 million is a floor or a ceiling,” Knox said. “It better be a floor.”
To pay for the plan, city staffers have suggested a 10-cent real estate tax rate increase spread out over five years, starting in Fiscal Year 2023.
The six conceptual designs range in cost from $48 million to $98 million, and Knox said they were largely a math exercise rather than design-driven. Fleshing out the concepts will come next as the architects get a better idea of what the council will fund.
For $48 million, Buford would be expanded to accommodate the current enrollment in grades six through eight, the main academic building would be renovated and building D would be demolished to make room for more parking. That option doesn’t include any upgrades to Walker.
For $98.6 million, an academic addition would be built at Buford to allow for enrollment growth along with a new arts and athletics building, and the main academic building would be renovated. At Walker, a standalone building would be constructed to house 20 preschool classrooms. Those projects could start at the same time while many of the other options started construction at Walker a year or two after the Buford project to accommodate current students.
Knox said VMDO is factoring in 3% annual inflation into project costs, which means a sooner start to the project would help.
“When you get a project this big, a delay eats up a ton of money,” Knox said.
The city’s preschool program is open to some 4-year-olds and 3-year-olds. Twenty classrooms would accommodate the program’s current enrollment. If the division wanted to expand the program for 3-year-olds to match the 4-year-olds’ enrollment, it would need 32 classrooms.
Knox said building a new facility for preschool leaves Walker available for future uses such as expanding preschool or adding a seventh elementary school, if enrollment increases. After years of growth, the city’s enrollment has started to stabilize.
Board member Jennifer McKeever said the floor of $50 million doesn’t get the school division to where it wants to be.
“It’s going to be urgent for us to continue to advocate for our students, and the vision that we have for our city’s future,” she said.
The 260-slide presentation walked the board through historical enrollment data, capacity calculations and other considerations for the project. Based on current projections, swapping preschool and the fifth grade would work, capacity-wise.
Board Chairwoman Lisa Larson-Torres thanked Knox and his team for the presentation and acknowledged that it was a lot of information. Larson-Torres and McKeever are part of the working group.
“And so it’s been a process,” Larson-Torres said. “I felt like every week, we had a new awakening as to how tough this was going to be for us to move forward. … So these are really challenging pieces for us to all grapple with.”
Walker and Buford were built in 1966. The 55-year-old buildings consume more energy than typical, have noisy HVAC units and leak moisture, dirt and pollen. Maintenance over the next 10 years would include a new roof and replacing the windows, among other projects.
Additionally, the buildings get little natural light. Amt said daylight matters to student performance and has been connected to better test scores and lower stress levels among students and staff.
During the presentation, the architects referenced a City Council promise to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45% in 2030. The reconfiguration project is the city’s most significant opportunity that’s currently planned in the next nine years to work toward that goal.
“This is the major opportunity that we have to do something,” Amt said.
Charlottesville has not built a new school since 1974.
“You guys aren’t used to doing this, and so it’s not been in your budget,” Knox said. “And so when all of a sudden a big one comes along, it’s a big deal, so this is one of the issues that we’re dealing with and it’s a key factor in our conversations.”