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Cost estimates for city schools reconfiguration reviewed

The three options to renovate and expand Buford Middle School will cost $59 million to $70 million, depending on inflation and when construction starts.

The Charlottesville School Board reviewed the cost estimates at a recent meeting. Those estimates will drive discussions over the next month about how to proceed with the reconfiguration of Buford and Walker Upper Elementary schools, which would add sixth grade to Buford, send fifth grade to the elementaries and consolidate preschoolers at Walker.

The City Council is expected to make a decision next month.

The version of the project considered most ideal would cost $123 million, which is beyond the city’s funding capabilities, officials said. So, a working group decided to focus initial funds — about $60 million — at Buford. The school system wants to pursue private funding to build an early childhood center at Walker.

To pay for the first phase of the project and achieve reconfiguration, the city would have to raise the real estate tax rate by five cents, said Wyck Knox, the project manager for VMDO Architects.

The reconfiguration will be the largest school construction project for the city since Charlottesville High School was built in 1974. The project has been discussed for more than a decade as a way to address capacity concerns and improve academic outcomes for students.

As part of the first phase, the city also would have to pay about $1.35 million to make Walker a temporary preschool facility. That includes installing an elevator, purchasing commercial step stools for the children and setting up outside learning areas. A freestanding early childhood center would cost $24 million to $27 million, according to the presentation.

For Buford, VMDO has drawn up three schemes, which were presented to the community design team last month. All three options involve the demolition of the D building, connecting the school’s indoor spaces, moving the administrative offices up to the entry level and relocating the garden closer to the school.

The architects purposely varied the levels of new construction and renovation in the design options to get a better idea of the costs.

“All three can be a world-class middle school,” Knox said.

At the recent School Board meeting, the VMDO team discussed ways to find additional funding in the city’s existing budget, such as through energy savings contracts that would reduce operating costs in the long term.

So far, community members have preferred the “Build in the Bowl” option, which entails new construction to the north and west of the school, including a new gym, a two-story “architectural presence” at the school’s front door and a light renovation of the academic and arts buildings.

That plan would cost an estimated $68.2 million if construction started this year and $73 million by the time the project begins in 2024. But, with alternative financing and a full renovation of the academic and arts building, the project could cost $64 million to $69.2 million.

“We’re meeting the charge of where we are supposed to be,” Knox said.

All cost estimations include construction, inflation over the next several years and 27.5% in soft expenses. Soft costs range from furniture and technology to fees and inspections.

As part of the presentation, Knox provided what he called “half-baked renderings.” They will get fleshed out some more before the community design team meets Sept. 14. The design team is made up of parents, teachers and elected officials, along with city and division administrators.

“We’re hoping that the renderings bring out and get more of that feeling, like this feels like a place I want to be,” Knox said.

The School Board and City Council will discuss the reconfiguration during a joint meeting Sept. 15, one of several public meetings scheduled over the next month.

The community design team also will hone in on its recommendation for both schools that the School Board is expected to sign off on at a Sept. 23 meeting. The goal is to achieve reconfiguration no later than August 2026.

On Oct. 4, his first day as city schools superintendent, Royal Gurley Jr. will formally present the reconfiguration request to the City Council.

Knox said he was interested in hearing more broadly from the community about the project.

“That gives us a month-plus to ramp up the engagement and see what the community wants to do,” he said.

For more information on the meetings, go to charlottesvilleschools.org/facilities.

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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