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City schools reconfiguration project focused on prioritizing wants and needs

With the dream versions of the Charlottesville schools reconfiguration project estimated to cost, on average, $123 million, the team tasked with the project’s design is working to prioritize wants and needs.

“I want to say right off the bat that these are not realistic amounts, just for lots of reasons,” Wyck Knox, who is leading the project for VMDO Architects, said at a recent meeting of the design team.

Inflation related to the pandemic, including higher than usual construction costs, led to higher than hoped for estimates for the initial site plans, which are no-compromises versions of the plans. In May, the most expensive option was pegged at $98.6 million, an estimate largely based on square footage calculations.

“I think it was important to see what this would cost and to stretch our legs this way,” Knox said of the new estimates.

In 2017, VMDO estimated that the project would cost between $60 million and $80 million if it started in 2020.

The City Council has earmarked $50 million for the project that would add sixth-grade to Buford Middle School and send fifth-grade back to the elementary schools. Preschool classes would be housed at the current Walker Upper Elementary under the plan. City school division officials have been thinking about reconfiguration since 2010.

Over the course of several meetings this summer, community design team members have brainstormed what they want to see in the revamped Buford and Walker schools, worked through questions about construction timing and phasing and explored different options for the campuses, which opened in 1966.

During the recent meeting, the design team reviewed the cost estimates and project scopes at price points ranging from $50 million to $80 million — all of which was the most definitive information VMDO has been able to provide to the group so far.

The team, which includes teachers, parents, elected officials and staff members from the city and schools, will meet next in person Aug. 3 at Buford Middle School to continue to review the different options and build consensus. The meetings are open to the public.

“We all want the moon and stars for Buford and Walker and our students deserve the best, but as has become clear tonight, there are probably tough choices involved with that,” said Kristen Hill, a community engagement specialist with VMDO.

A tour of Walker is scheduled for 10 a.m. Aug. 7.

The design team has until Sept. 24 to decide on which options to send to the City Council. In October, councilors will decide whether to move forward on the project and which approach to take. The final decision will be made after a new council is seated in January, following November elections.

To help with outreach to students and the community about the project, VMDO is hiring four peer engagers. Ideal candidates would live or work in the city and have attended city schools or had family members who did so, according to a job description. Peer engagers will make $18 an hour and be expected to work three eight-hour days a month until March.

For more information and to apply, go to

Cost estimates

VMDO sent six plans off to the cost estimators that vary in buildings demolished, scale of renovations and new construction, among other things. The average cost of three Buford plans is $89 million. The Walker average is $33 million, which would cover the cost of a new 20-classroom early childhood center. In a potential phase two, the center could be expanded to 32 classrooms.

At $123 million, both schools would get modern learning spaces, existing buildings would see major renovations and all facilities would have a high-performance design, meaning they would be zero-energy campuses, exceed code on ventilation and have solar panels on all rooftops.

Both sites would have improved accessibility and better access for cars and buses, among other improvements.

“Lots of money would be spent on the sites to make them work right,” Knox said.

The $123 million total estimate includes construction costs, inflation over the next several years and 27.5% in soft costs. Soft costs range from furniture and technology to fees and inspections.

Because $123 million far exceeds what council has said it’s comfortable spending, the design team has to figure out how to scale back and where. The design team started those discussions in breakout groups during the recent virtual meeting and the key takeaways from those conversations will be presented at the Aug. 3 meeting.

For VMDO, the project must achieve reconfiguration, which would entail building an addition at Buford, adding a new fire lane, relocating the city schoolyard garden and removing the track.

At Walker, achieving reconfiguration would mean 18 early-childhood classrooms in either new or renovated space with bathrooms in most of those classrooms.

Other key priorities for the architects at both campuses are to improve basic ADA site access, secure and accessible building entrances and open field space.

With those priorities in mind, VMDO developed project plans that would cost $50 million, $60 million, $70 million and $80 million.

As part of the $50 million option, $35 million would go toward the Buford addition, to connect all the other existing buildings and to refresh the athletics building. Joe Brookover, with VMDO, said the addition would only include the classrooms needed to support an additional grade and a school with 1,050 students.

At Walker, $15 million would go toward building a new wing connected to the main academic building that would provide 15 to 16 new classrooms with bathrooms in the rooms and provide a secure entrance. No other spaces in Walker would be updated as part of this option.

On the high end, at $80 million, $58 million would go toward building a three-story addition at Buford and a new gym, along with a renovation of the academic and arts buildings. All buildings would be connected, as well. The addition also would have media and support spaces.

“When we start to hit this level of funding, we can really start to push what we’re doing with the building to do what’s best for the site,” Brookover said.

The rest of the money — $22 million — would be used at Walker to build a two-story addition with 18 classrooms and to renovate the auditorium to be a movement space.

Knox said that after four meetings, the design team has reached an inflection point in their planning.

“We’ve done a lot of work, gotten a lot of information, priced a lot of things and done a lot of analysis,” he said. “It’s now time to start taking that, making some positions and pivoting to a larger public conversation. … This is a critical point in our conversations.”


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