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City school board approves reconfiguration plan

The Charlottesville School Board unanimously approved a resolution Thursday that outlines a general plan to bring all the middle grades under one roof and put all preschoolers at one campus as part of the reconfiguration project that’s been in the works since 2010 but not moved forward because of funding concerns.

“I’m really excited to be here tonight,” said Wyck Knox, the project manager for VMDO Architects, the Charlottesville-based firm leading the design work. “This feels like the closest we’ve ever gotten to reconfiguration.”

The board signed off on the recommendations finalized last week by a community design team that worked throughout the summer on the plans. Those recommendations include a $75 million phase one and a $22.4 million phase two, which would expand and renovate Buford Middle School, convert Walker Upper Elementary into a temporary preschool center and then construct an standalone early childhood center.

“I’m really excited that we’re as close as we are to having a 21st-century learning space for our kids and a space that our kids deserve,” board chairwoman Lisa Larson-Torres said following the vote.

Thursday’s vote is the first of many steps that need to happen before construction can begin. The board’s resolution officially requests that the city replace the current $50 million placeholder in its five-year capital improvement program with $75 million, starting in fiscal year 2023. City Councilors will formally hear the request Oct. 4 and vote later next month. The board and councilors will make a final decision about whether to spend the money and commit to reconfiguration in March 2022.

Division officials have said reconfiguring how the grades are set up would be transformative for students and help to address persistent achievement gaps and equity issues.

Students of color account for 84% of the preschool program’s enrollment and 62% of grades five through eight, according to VMDO’s analysis. Residents of color made up 34% of the city’s population, per the 2019 census.

Students from low-income households are also disportionately represented in both groups. In preschool, 66% of students are considered economically disadvantaged and 56% are in grades five through eight. In Charlottesville, 24% of residents are at or below the poverty level.

“So these are exactly the people that we are doing this project for when it comes to equity in our community,” Knox said.

As part of the first phase of the project, Buford Middle School would be expanded and heavily renovated to accommodate sixth-grade and up to 1,050 students. Walker Upper Elementary, which currently houses fifth and sixth-graders, would be converted into a temporary facility for preschoolers.

The Buford part of the project is estimated to cost $73 million, and it includes a new academic wing in front of the current main building and a new gym. The existing academic and arts buildings would be significantly renovated to include an expanded stage, full replacement of HVAC units, modernization of the kitchen equipment and upgrades to the exterior walls.

The project approach approved Thursday would complete reconfiguration by August 2026 with construction starting in 2023.

Phase two would involve the construction of a $22.4 million standalone early childhood center on the Walker campus near Rose Hill Drive. That phase would start as soon as funding is available, per the resolution.

Knox said that the VMDO team heard strong support and little opposition for the project during outreach over the summer and this school year, though some were surprised that it was actually going to happen.

“There’s been really unified support for the project from everyone we’ve talked to regardless of background and race,” he said. “… That’s been very refreshing.”

“I think our community is realizing that this is the right thing to do, and that we very much need this for our kids,” board member Sherry Kraft said. “We don’t want to short change this process. We want to really do it right at this point. I’m very excited to move forward.”

If the project is funded solely with real estate taxes, that would require a five-cent increase to the tax rate, which is currently 95 cents per $100 of assessed value. The resolution states the School Board understands that possibility.

Knox said the project’s cost is in line with other school constructions underway in Virginia.

“A lot of other municipalities, cities and counties in the Commonwealth of Virginia, are getting this done and finding ways to fund this,” he said.

The city also is planning to pursue a sales tax increase, the revenue from which could only go to school construction projects. If approved by the General Assembly and local voters, the city could levy a general retail sales tax at a rate of 1%, which would bring in about $12 million a year.

The basic idea of reconfiguration — adding sixth-grade to Buford, fifth-grade to existing elementaries and consolidating preschool at Walker — hasn’t changed since 2010 when the project was last seriously discussed.

VMDO estimated in late 2011 that the project would cost $46 million, and budgetary concerns led the School Board to put the project on the backburner in early 2012.

Reconfiguration was pulled off the shelf in 2015 at the urging of former City Councilor Wes Bellamy in order to expand early childhood programs. But, growth in student enrollment put that plan on hold once again.

The latest effort kicked off in December 2018 as an answer to concerns about school capacity and equity.

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