Work toward the long-sought reconfiguration of Buford Middle and Walker Upper Elementary schools in Charlottesville has restarted after negotiations with an architecture firm were paused at the start of the pandemic.
City staff are hoping to wrap up those negotiations by the end of the year to pave the way for the firm to start drawing up plans for the project, which includes moving sixth grade to Buford and preschool to Walker, renovating both schools and sending fifth grade back to the elementary schools. The city issued the request for proposals in December 2019 and started negotiating the contract in February.
Details on the project and a revised timeline for the design process were presented to city councilors Friday during a budget work session about the five-year capital improvement program.
The work session was the first time in nearly two years council has publicly discussed the reconfiguration project in-depth. In that time, three new members have joined the council.
Reconfiguration is one of several significant projects vying for funding in the next capital improvement program, including the West Main Streetscape. The first year of that program is in the city’s capital budget while projects in the other four years aren’t funded immediately. Construction funding for reconfiguration won’t be needed until 2022, staff said Friday.
A 2017 growth and capacity study from VMDO Architects estimated that the reconfiguration plan could cost from $55 million to $80 million.
On Friday, city staff requested a minimum commitment of $50 million for the project as well as input on whether the council wanted to pay for the project through tax increases or changing the funding formula for the school division’s budget, among other options. The city’s debt capacity is currently at $58 million.
Councilors were supportive of the overall project, though were torn about how exactly to pay for it along with other capital projects and whether to commit to the $50 million placeholder before knowing a more concrete cost estimate.
They’ll receive a cost estimate for the project by June 2021 under the revised timeline. At that point, councilors would decide whether to move forward.
“Until we get the information back, we won’t really know what that amount is,” Mayor Nikuyah Walker said. “It sounds like you could potentially cripple a project by putting in a lower amount and then you may have to have a different discussion in June.”
Walker and Councilors Heather Hill and Sena Magill advocated broadly for putting money toward improving school facilities.
“From a budgetary standpoint, it’s kind of a moot point whether it’s investment in the school structures or whether it’s investment in the configuration,” Magill said. “It’s still going to be tens of millions of dollars no matter which way it goes.”
City Council has put about $1 million a year toward modernizing school buildings since 2017, with projects at Clark and Jackson-Via elementaries. That amount was kicked up to $1.25 million this fiscal year to account for inflation.
Walker told councilors to visit some of the city schools including Walker and Buford.
“It’s helpful to just see how much we ignore these buildings in what we call a world class city and that we expect our kids to be able to thrive in them,” she said.
Magill said she would be interested in seeing more information about a five-cent tax rate increase and how that would change the outlook for the CIP. Money from that increase could go into a specific fund for school projects, she suggested.
Hill said she’s talked to school officials about the need to sell the community on a potential tax increase as another revenue source to support the reconfiguration project.
Walker said she’s also discussed with school officials the potential budget trade-offs if council funds the project. The school division currently receives 40% of new real estate and personal property tax revenues.
“I think as a community we all have to understand that we’re not going to be able to do everything the same as we’re currently doing to initiate a major project like this,” she said.
As part of the fiscal year 2020 budget, City Council allocated $3 million for planning and design effort with the goal of assessing the two schools and crafting preliminary designs in order to give the council a reasonable cost estimate.
Michael Goddard, the senior project manager, said the firm would be able to do three different layouts of concept and schematic designs for both the middle school and early childhood center at Walker for about $1.5 million.
Although there was no clear resolution to the council’s discussion, city staff did say the conversation helped to give more direction to the architect during negotiations.
“The sky’s not the limit,” Goddard said. “… I think at this point we already know that some higher end of what we could have thought of is off the table. Now, it’s just a matter of trying to figure out how we can build a funding strategy that gets us in the front door, and hopefully gives us a little bit of leeway to build schools that are appropriate for a town of this quality, frankly.”
Hill said that she thought $50 million wasn’t a realistic placeholder number for the scope of the project.
“I don’t think we have a ton of time before we do something meaningful in both of those buildings just from a pure facilities standpoint,” she said, adding that investment in both buildings has been delayed in anticipation of the project. “… Regardless of reconfiguration or not, we’re going to need to be committing a real sizable amount of money for these schools.”
Reconfiguration has been discussed off and on since 2008 with the Recession and now the pandemic complicating the timeline. Officials have said such a project would be transformative for students and help to address persistent achievement gaps and equity issues.
The School Board revived the project in December 2018 following the 2017 VMDO study as a way to address equity issues and enrollment growth.
The School Board and City Council will have a joint budget work session in January.