Charlottesville City Schools will officially take ownership of Charlottesville-Albemarle Technical Education Center on July 1, 2024, completing a takeover that Albemarle County Public Schools tried and failed to accomplish late last year.
The prize is an institution that has provided career learning opportunities to thousands of city and county students since its founding 50 years ago and is considered by some to be the crown jewel of local schools.
The city school board on Thursday unanimously voted to acquire the county school division’s stake in CATEC for $5.3 million.
“We wanted to continue the partnership with Albemarle County,” Charlottesville School Board Vice-Chair Dom Morse told The Daily Progress on Thursday after the school board’s vote. “But based on their offer, we had to make a decision based on whether or not we wanted to protect the interests of our students.”
Morse was referring to the October 2022 offer made by Albemarle County Public Schools to buy Charlottesville’s interest in the property, just outside of city limits on Rio Road. In making the offer, the county “dissolved” the agreement between the two school divisions, which in turn allowed the city school division to launch a takeover bid of its own.
The county knew that the Charlottesville school division could purchase CATEC when it presented its formal offer to the city on Dec. 13, 2022.
“The agreement clearly says if one partner makes an offer, the other party can either accept or match,” Albemarle County Public Schools spokesman Phil Giaramita told The Daily Progress on Friday. “If they match, then they may have ownership of the facility in this particular case.”
Charlottesville City Schools had 60 days to decide whether to accept Albemarle’s offer or purchase the county’s stake in CATEC, according to an offer letter obtained by The Daily Progress.
Just how students will be affected by the change in ownership is unclear, but Giaramita said the county was willing to risk losing its interest in CATEC out of a concern for its students.
“The primary focus has always been the kids at CATEC,” Giaramita said.
The county school division said that becoming the school’s sole owner would allow it to make improvements to the facilities and better use the school’s more than 10,000 square feet of space.
For city schools, officials said the priority will be ensuring students can transition smoothly as the city assumes sole ownership of CATEC.
“This will not be an overnight change,” Charlottesville City Schools Chief Operations Officer Kim Powell told The Daily Progress in an email. “But we do have a need within the schools for more student learning options, and we see this as part of the city’s larger vision for workforce development.”
A long partnership ends
A 1969 operating agreement has dictated that the county and city school divisions are equal partners in CATEC. The school is mostly run by a central board that consists of three members from each division’s school board.
Each division has split the costs of maintaining the facility.
Albemarle County, which has more students at CATEC, pays a proportionately larger amount to fund the school. Charlottesville City Schools contributed $613,638 to CATEC’s operating budget for the 2021-2022 school year. Albemarle gave CATEC roughly $1.98 million for the same period.
Whether the county school division makes further contributions to fund CATEC depends on if it has students at the technical school.
“We don’t know that yet,” Giaramita said.
City school officials said they are still discussing just how county students might be involved in CATEC in the future.
The offer the county presented to the city in December allowed city students to attend CATEC for free for three years. For seven years after that, city students who wanted to attend CATEC would have paid discounted tuition, Giaramita said.
According to admissions information on CATEC’s website today, out-of-district students will pay $2,000 in tuition next school year.
The difference between the city and the county’s contribution to CATEC is based on the fact that only 67 of CATEC’s 358 students live in Charlottesville. Though it’s unclear how Charlottesville will make up for the gap in funding, Powell said the difference in enrollment encourages the city school division to work to accommodate the county.
“ACPS had little motivation to accommodate the needs of CCS students. However, we are in the opposite position. If ACPS is interested in continuing to use CATEC, we have incentive to create a model that works for their students as well as ours,” Powell said.
Giaramita disputed the notion that the county would have disregarded city students.
“That’s demonstrably false,” Giaramita said. “We talked with the city about the provisions for city students.”
Powell said the Charlottesville School Board made the decision to buy CATEC in consultation with the city government and was “still in the early stages of planning.”
“If they plan to send students to CATEC, we’ll talk about the cost allocation model moving forward,” Powell said.
Difference of opinion
Giaramita also said that the city’s assertion that the county assessed CATEC’s value at $10.6 million was incorrect, though he wasn’t sure whether the county’s actual assessment was higher or lower than that. The city school division said its independent assessor valued the facilities at $11.87 million.
“We never told the city what our appraisal number was,” Giaramita said. “The 5.3 number is accurate … but you can’t simply take 5.3 and double it and say that means their evaluation was 10.6.”
Despite the fact that the nature of the county’s future involvement in CATEC is uncertain, Giaramita said he remains optimistic about the division’s ability to offer career learning opportunities.
“CATEC clearly is not the only option for us,” Giaramita said. “The future is still very bright.”
City school officials expressed their own optimism.
“There are many options and we are excited about the opportunities for this facility and the programs,” Powell said.