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City community members call on investments in schools and affordable housing

Leaders of a group of nonprofits, coalitions and other organizations are calling on the Charlottesville City Council to invest in both public schools and affordable housing.

In letters to council and comments at public meetings, the community members say the city should find a way to do upgrade Buford Middle School and fund affordable housing plans.

The city’s affordable housing plan calls for an investment of $10 million a year on tax relief and direct subsidies.

Community leaders from organizations such as the Legal Aid Justice Center and the Charlottesville/Albemarle Affordable Housing Coalition have said they are concerned about the potential for pitting education and housing spending against each other.

“A stable home that families can afford is the bedrock for educational success of children and a quality pre-K through 12th grade education is essential for individuals to break free from the web of generational poverty that too many households in Charlottesville are caught within,” they wrote in a letter to City Council earlier this week. “The economic vitality of the City requires an educated workforce that can afford to live in the same community where they work.”

Other signatories to the letter include Mary Coleman with Charlottesville United for Public Education, Beth Ike with the Burnley Moran Elementary parent-teacher organization, Chris Meyer with the Local Energy Alliance Program, and Laura Goldblatt with the Charlottesville Low-Income Housing Coalition.

City Council will dive into the proposed $216 million budget at a work session Thursday. That work session will focus on revenues and expenses for the coming fiscal year. The capital improvement plan will be discussed at the council’s March 31 work session.

The proposed capital budget allocates $7.33 million for affordable housing projects. The operating budget includes an additional $1 million for tax and rent relief.

The spending plan also includes full funding for the first phase of the city schools’ reconfiguration project in fiscal year 2024. However, city staff said in the budget that “significant revenue enhancements will be required in order to fully fund this project.”

That first phase of the school plan is expected to cost about $76.8 million, a price tag that’s higher than initially expected because of inflation. For $76.8 million, the city can expand Buford and heavily renovate the 57-year-old school.

Following the expansion, the upper elementary school would be eliminated, sixth graders would join seventh and eighth grades at Buford and fifth graders would go back to their elementary schools for one more year. Preschool would then be centralized at the Walker Upper Elementary campus.

So far, city staff has suggested a 10-cent increase to the real estate tax rate in order to pay for the project. Interim city manager Michael C. Rogers said at Monday’s council meeting that at least an increase of 7.5 cents would be needed.

City staff is recommending that additional revenue sources be pursued in the next fiscal year for the fiscal year 2024 budget. That could include an increase the local sales tax, but the city needs approval from the General Assembly and local voters to make that happen.

In the letter to the city, organization leaders encouraged the use of every tool available to fully fund investments in the schools and affordable housing.

“For decades, key infrastructure investments in schools and affordable housing were kicked down the road, and we now face a large, overdue bill for these essential components of a healthy community,” they wrote. “We recognize and support the reality that the city will need to increase revenue to cover the costs.”

That message was echoed at Monday’s City Council meeting.

“I’ve heard a great deal of rhetoric recently that as a city we need to choose from among the school reconfiguration project and affordable housing program and collective bargaining for our public employees,” said David Koenig, a history teacher at Lugo-McGinness Academy with the Charlottesville Education Association. “But these are not options from which we can pick and choose. They are all fundamental human rights.”

Leah Puryear, a former School Board member who backed the Buford project, said the city needs to act now.

“In 1988, the decision was made to have an upper elementary and middle school in hopes of creating equity and diversity,” Puryear said. “It has done the exact opposite. We must not kick this can any further.”

In a letter to the Daily Progress, housing advocate Joy Johnson and Charlottesville parent Shymora Cooper said that the city is at the bottom of a “a proverbial hole” it has been digging.

“For decades the city declined to tax itself appropriately or make the investments in housing and public school systems necessary to provide a level playing field for its residents — especially those in the lower-income brackets,” they wrote.

Cooper is part of Charlottesville United for Public Education, a group created by parents and community members to support the overall reconfiguration project.

Cooper and Johnson wrote that investing in public schools and housing “builds a strong, functional, and thriving community.”

In addition to improved school facilities, children in Charlottesville need stable housing for educational success, they wrote.

They said stable housing is harder for low-income households to get and encouraged the city to continue investment in a range of programs to increase affordable housing options. They acknowledged in their letter that real tax rate increases could make it harder for low-income residents to live in the city.

“The flip side is that without affordable housing supports and a public school system funded by the additional revenue, it is even more difficult to afford housing in Charlottesville and for the children to receive an equitable education experience compared to their private school peers,” they wrote.

Reporter Ginny Bixby contributed to this report.


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