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City adjusts reconfiguration plan after high cost estimate

After receiving much higher than expected cost estimates, the working group leading Charlottesville’s schools reconfiguration project wants to put all of the available initial funding toward renovating and expanding Buford Middle School and start the project a year earlier than planned.

The working group has settled on $60 million for the project’s first phase at Buford, according to information presented to the City Council during a work session Tuesday, which was held to discuss budget development for fiscal year 2023 and framed as the beginning of that conversation.

How the other half of reconfiguration — centralizing preschool at Walker Upper Elementary School — will be funded is not clear at this time. Walker currently houses fifth and sixth grade but as part of the project, fifth grade would be moved back to the elementary school and sixth grade would go to Buford.

The design phase of the project started this spring after a pandemic-related delay and is led by the working group made up of city and school officials.

Councilor Heather Hill, a member of the working group, said this revised approach would entail limited capital investment in Walker for the preschool students to make the building work in the interim until phase two can commence.

No other details about the request were presented at the work session, except that construction on the Buford phase would start in fiscal year 2024, a year earlier than planned, to avoid further cost inflation.

Currently, the city has included a $50 million placeholder in fiscal year 2025 of its five-year capital improvement program for reconfiguration, which would be paid for in part by a 10-cent real estate tax rate increase. Four cents of the increase would go to the school projects while the other six cents would pay for the rest of the CIP.

School Board Chairwoman Lisa Larson Torres said after the meeting that she took issue with how the tax increase was presented at the work session, especially with the further clarification about the breakdown.

“I think we all — City Council, all elected officials, everybody — need to be clear with the public when that’s being presented and transparent,” she said. “It’s not just all on the schools.”

Previously, city staff have proposed phasing that increase in over five years but starting the project sooner would mean a 10-cent increase in one year. Any potential increase would be approved next spring.

Mayor Nikuyah Walker, who is also a member of the working group, said $50 million was never going to be enough for the project.

“We knew that,” she said.

In 2017, the project was estimated to cost between $60 million and $80 million, if it was started in 2020.

The additional $10 million could come from the $18 million set aside for the West Main streetscape project, which would require approval from councilors, according to a presentation at the work session. No vote was taken about the West Main project’s fate, which has been discussed on and off over the last several years.

To make the project work at $50 million, the city has said it would have had to hold off on future capital projects and reconsider how it funds the school system’s operational budget — a point city officials have regularly raised in the last year. Historically, the school system has received at least 40% of new real estate revenue, though the School Board typically requests additional funding.

Torres said that changes to the funding formula were a concern and would mean cuts to programs such as STEM, gifted and fine arts and staffing related to social-emotional learning.

“All of those things that the city and the community value,” Torres said. “So those are the cuts that we are looking to make at the level of what City Council and the city manager alluded to.”

Torres said she was grateful that the reconfiguration conversation has progressed. The school system has been talking about the project since 2007, she said.

Initially a project about capacity and efficiency, it has become a project about equity and what’s best for the students, Torres said.

“The schools have not had a significant investment in infrastructure since the ‘70s,” she said. “… I think that’s huge and we need to recognize that. The thought now for everybody trying to wrap their head around what this feels like to make this huge capital investment in schools is it’s not anything we should take lightly, but again we’re talking about the ‘70s.”

Reconfiguration would be the largest school construction project since Charlottesville High School was built in 1974. In 2017, the city started putting in $1 million a year for modernization of the elementary schools. That amount was bumped up to $1.25 million because of inflation.

Council discussion

Some councilors were hesitant about the price tag for the Buford phase of reconfiguration and suggested that they wanted to wait until other revenue sources materialized. One such source could be a 1-cent increase to the local sales tax rate to fund school construction. The sales tax rate increase would generate $10 million a year, city officials have said, but would have to be approved first by the General Assembly and then local voters.

“We have to acknowledge that there is only one clear path to doing what we want to do and that is the sales tax increase, so that schools can then be in charge of their own destiny in that respect,” Councilor Lloyd Snook said.

City Manager Chip Boyles said getting the sales tax approved would be a “game changer” for the city, but they can’t budget for it to happen.

Councilor Sena Magill said the city and councilors struggled over the $50 million placeholder.

“Now we’re looking at $60 million for one school,” Magill said, adding that she was worried about the ability to pay for unexpected capacity needs. “… At the same time, I know Buford and Walker are in desperate need of change. There’s really not any good answers right now.”

Magill also wanted more information about the implications of updating Buford but leaving Walker untouched and how the overall project would work.

The idea of reconfiguring the schools has swirled around for years as a way to address growth and improve student outcomes. Work on potential designs started in June, and the first phase will wrap up in late September. At that point, the council is expected to decide on an approach.

The idea to put all the money toward Buford stemmed from a review of the initial cost estimates. Charlottesville-based VMDO Architects told a community group last week that the dream versions of the project would cost, on average, $123 million. That figure is higher than expected because of pandemic-related inflation.

VMDO also presented cheaper options to the committee that ranged from $50 million to $80 million for both schools.

“It seemed like they were cutting corners to make two projects happen simultaneously, and that’s not what anybody would want,” Walker said. “I don’t think it will give us the facilities that our kids deserve.”

Torres said that for Walker school, they are counting on the momentum from a group that’s working with Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, on sales tax legislation, as well as private donations to support an early childhood center on the Walker campus.

For $60 million, the city could build a three-story addition at Buford with new media and support spaces, construct a full-sized gym and athletics building, renovate the current media center and refresh the academic and arts buildings, according to an option presented to the community design team. All buildings would be connected.

The design team, made up of teachers and parents along with school and city staff members, is working to flesh out specific site plans. The team will have an in-person meeting at 6 p.m. Aug. 3 at Buford that’s open to the public. Food and childcare will be provided.

The council is expected to formally decide on a conceptual design in October. The design team has until Sept. 24 to decide on which three options to submit to the council.

For more information about the design process and project, go to charlottesvilleschools.org/facilities.

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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