After discussing the idea for more than decade, Charlottesville is another step closer to changing how grades are set up in the schools, a change it hopes will help level the academic playing field.
The so-called reconfiguration project, which would bring all the middle grades under one roof and put all preschoolers at one campus, reached a significant milestone Monday evening after the City Council unanimously backed the $75 million plan, though questions remain how the project will be funded. City staff members have said a 10-cent real estate tax rate would needed to be part for the project and others in the city’s five-year capital improvement program.
The project, if completed, would be the largest school construction project since Charlottesville High School was built in 1974. Officials have said the price is in line with other school construction projects in the state. Goochland County is planning to build a new elementary school for $60 million if a bond referendum is approved.
“There’s a long road ahead from a revenue standpoint to what we have to do, and decisions are gonna have to be made, but I’m certainly committed to this project and I think it’s certainly long overdue,” Councilor Heather Hill said.
Monday’s vote paves the way for VMDO Architects to continue working on the project, a process that will include more detailed meetings with building employees to flesh out the designs. Furthermore, the vote does not commit the city to fund the project. That decision will be made early next year as part of the fiscal year 2023 budget process.
Division officials have said reconfiguring how the grades are set up would be transformative for students, helping to address persistent achievement gaps and equity issues by upgrading the buildings, eliminating additional transitions between schools and consolidating preschool at one campus. The project entails adding sixth-grade to Buford Middle School, centralizing preschool at Walker Upper Elementary and sending fifth grade back to the elementary. Walker currently houses fifth and sixth grade.
Both Walker and Buford are the only schools currently accredited with conditions, one step below full accreditation in the state’s rating system. Additionally, preschool and the middle grades are made up of more students of color as well as those from low-income households compared with the overall school division and city demographics, highlighting the need for the project.
Mayor Nikuyah Walker said at Monday’s meeting that if parents hadn’t been sending their kids to private school for middle school rather than Buford, the state of the Walker and Buford buildings would have been addressed sooner.
Throughout the design process, VMDO Architects and school officials have pointed to the health and academic benefits of improving the school buildings, which are 55 years old. Teachers have said the heating and cooling systems don’t work properly and are loud, making it difficult to teach.
“Our spaces are just old,” Knox said. “And they’re not meeting the specific needs of these age groups. We’ve got issues with indoor air quality. We’ve got issues with energy use.”
Council has wrestled with the implications of the project for nearly a year but were largely supportive of the plan and the possible 10-cent real estate tax rate increase that city officials say is needed to pay for reconfiguration and the other projects in the city’s five-year capital improvement plan. Monday’s meeting is likely the last time this council will discuss the project before two new councilors join the group next year.
Hill said that the project will affect the council’s other priorities and asked the community to do whatever they could to find other revenue sources to pay for it. City budget officials have said that a $75 million project would exhaust the city’s ability to issue bonds — meaning the city can’t start new projects for at least two years — and double the debt service in six years.
“I’m OK with that,” councilor Sena Magill said of the possible tax rate increase. “I really want people to understand what that means to their personal budgets. … This is not an against. It’s really important that we see the whole picture for all of this, and so I’m just using this to make sure the public is informed.”
The city’s real estate tax rate is 95 cents per $100 of assessed value, which is below the state average of $1.04. 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, officials have said.
Councilor Michael Payne said that tax increase would be “a huge positive game changer.”
Councilor Lloyd Snook said with the different design options previously presented at meetings that city has to be all in on the project.
“We’re all in for the schools,” Snook said. “… I’m all in favor of it. Go for it.”
Walker said the project would be a big stretch and require hard work to get it across the finish line. She urged her fellow councilors to expand the real estate tax relief program so that individuals aren’t priced out of the city because of that tax increase.
“Because then the same kids and families who’ve been filling the schools in the past won’t be here, so it’ll be a totally different demographic,” she said.
She also encouraged the city to look at the school project holistically in terms of other needs in the community.
“If we’re not looking at this as a holistic approach, then the needs where the kids spend a lot of time too, at home and out in the community, if they are not met, the kids that are going to show up in those new buildings are not going to be prepared to learn no matter what building you design,” she said.
Council approved a resolution that essentially sets the budget for the first phase of the project at $75 million. During phase one, Buford would be expanded and heavily renovated to accommodate sixth grade and up to 1,050 students. Walker, which currently houses fifth and sixth-graders, would be converted into a temporary facility for the city’s preschoolers. Fifth grade will be moved back to the elementary schools as part of the project.
The first phase would wrap up by August 2026 with construction starting July 2023, under the current timeline.
In an eventual phase two, a standalone, $22.4 million early childhood center would be built on the Walker campus.
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. Additionally, the estimates are based on the current construction costs, which are higher than usual because of the pandemic.
The School Board approved a similar resolution last month following months of work by a community design team to determine the best way to achieve reconfiguration. The design team, made up of school division staff, city officials, parents and teachers, met several times throughout the summer. A similar design team will be convened for this next part of the project.
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 rest of the money in phase one will go to turning Walker into a temporary preschool facility and purchasing furniture for fifth-grade classrooms.
A trio of energy-focused organizations including LEAP, the Community Climate Collaborative and Generation 180 urged City Council to make zero-energy design a priority in the project, which would mean readying the buildings’ roofs for solar panels and eliminating the use of onsite fossil fuel energy, among other elements. Zero-energy means no electricity or gas bills, they wrote in the letter.
Several other community groups and businesses signed the letter that was read to council during Monday’s meeting.
“We have a tremendous opportunity before us right now to make a once-in-a-generation investment: modernizing and revitalizing aging school buildings at the Buford and Walker school sites in a way that will yield long-term benefits for our students and educators, our taxpayers, our community health, and our planet,” the organizations wrote in the letter.
Additionally, City Council set a goal in 2019 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45% by 2030 and to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. VMDO has already designed at least one zero-energy school, Discovery Elementary in Arlington, according to the letter.
Snook said that he wanted the version of the project that would have the greatest ecological impact as well as economic impact and educational impact.
“I see no reason to spend $70 million and not spend another $3 million to do it right, to get the geothermal, to get the solar panels, to do the rest of that,” he said. “First of all because in the long run it will save us money. Second because it is absolutely the right thing to do for the environment and for all the reasons that we’ve heard tonight.”
Payne said if the city was going on all in, they shouldn’t cut corners to save a million here or there.
“This is an extremely expensive project and that’s not a bad thing,” he said. “It’s been delayed for so long and it’s inevitable and necessary, but it is expensive because of that, which again is not a reason that it shouldn’t happen. It is important. But I think it’s just going to be very important if we’re committed to making it happen — which I think we all are — to just confront it honestly and figure out how we’re going to make it happen. I just think on council’s end, we haven’t quite figured it out completely yet.”