Kevin Garcia feels at home at Charlottesville-Albemarle Technical Education Center, something that’s easy to see in the way his classmates joke around with him, nudging him forward with their elbows.
“I can trust people with my safety here. The adults in charge, they’re aware of everything that you’re going through,” he said.
Kevin is in the 11th grade at Charlottesville High School and spends half of every school day at CATEC. At CATEC, he’s learning how to replace a car’s faulty brakes, how to change its oil and repair its transmission in the auto service technology program.
He’s one of the school’s 362 students who would be affected if Albemarle County Public Schools buys CATEC. The county school division announced Thursday that it wants to buy full interest in the technical school. Should the deal go through, it would end almost 50 years of joint ownership and operation with Charlottesville City Schools.
CATEC was founded in 1973 and is run by both the city and county school divisions according to a 1969 operating agreement. The school is mostly run by a center board that consists of three members from each division’s school board. Each division splits the costs of maintaining the facility. Albemarle County, which has more students at CATEC, pays a proportionately larger amount to fund the school.
Albemarle County Public Schools says it seeks sole ownership of CATEC so it can modernize the facility and expand its programs. But Charlottesville City Schools contests that idea, saying that they could update the school while continuing to follow the operating agreement.
“Our intent is to make things even stronger,” said Phil Giaramita, Albemarle County Public Schools’ spokesman. He said that CATEC would “absolutely” continue to be a technical school where both county and city students can learn trades like cosmetology and welding.
City officials also noted that the county schools are overcrowded and space is at a premium and that could be a central reason why the county wants to buy CATEC.
“We understand that, while there is some intent to modernize the campus, ACPS has bigger plans for its own expansion into the space,” Charlottesville City Schools board member Lisa Larson-Torres said in a written statement.
For Larson-Torres, any discussion between the divisions was superficial.
“We didn’t have an understanding of why they wanted to buy CATEC. We know that they need to build more schools, we know that they’re at capacity,” Larson-Torres said.
“CATEC is underutilized,” Giaramita said. The school’s current enrollment is 362, but he estimated that the campus could fit up to 600 students.
“We have overcrowding, including in Albemarle High School. Albemarle High School is overcrowded by well over a hundred students right now,” Giaramita said.
The city school division is worried that its students will be left out.
“We are hopeful for the future inclusion of CCS students, but how CCS students would be successfully integrated is unclear,” said Larson-Torres in a written statement.
A press release from the county schools on Thursday said the division’s interest in CATEC is “predicated on a desire to make substantial investments in the modernization of the CATEC facility.” It hopes for a “planned expansion” of the school’s project-based learning and connections between graduates and potential employers.
“If their intent was truly to just invest in the current programs and upgrade the space, that would be a discussion with the joint board,” Larson-Torres said in a phone interview. The joint board consists of each division’s full school board and meets twice a year.
Stephanie Carter, CATEC’s director, said that the school hadn’t been renovated since it opened as far as she was aware.
“They’ll repaint the walls every now and again,” Carter said, but there have been no significant upgrades.
The county believes that sole ownership of CATEC would enable it to update the building after decades of use.
“There’s clearly a lot of potential here that’s not being used,” Giaramita said. “The key to realizing that are investments to modernize the facility. One of the things ownership allows you to do is move more quickly.”
Larson-Torres, in her written statement, mentioned the city schools’ “recent investment of millions of dollars into the physical infrastructure that comprises the CATEC facility” as well as its contribution to CATEC’s operating costs.
Larson-Torres said the city school division had paid for repairs to a roof, a floor and a bathroom. The city’s 2019 capital improvement plan included $1 million to mend CATEC’s roof. The county division reimbursed it for half. The Daily Progress could not find the other items in the city’s budget.
CATEC currently offers 10 programs for high school students. For Albemarle County Public Schools, expanding CATEC encompasses adding programs and bringing more students into those programs.
It’s not clear whether the county school division has the money to buy CATEC. The funds aren’t in any existing budget or the division’s capital improvement plan. Giaramita says that the schools are working on next year’s capital improvement plan and that CATEC would likely be included.
The division would then need to ask the county for the money, and the county could deny the request.
Carter, for her part, supports the deal, as long as city and county students both would be able to attend the school.
“There would be positive impacts,” she said.
She hopes to expand the school’s auto service technology program, the one Kevin Garcia is enrolled in, so that he and his classmates can learn how to work on electric vehicles. She thinks this might be the way to serve CATEC students.