The Charlottesville City school division is planning a busy summer to hear from the community and start designing the planned school reconfiguration project.
Wednesday’s virtual gathering was the first community meeting to discuss the planned reconfiguration of Walker Upper Elementary and Buford Middle schools after months of meetings among elected officials about the project. The project includes adding sixth grade to Buford, sending fifth grade back to the elementary schools and centralizing preschool at Walker.
The division and city government are working with Charlottesville-based VMDO Architects to make the project a reality. The firm was selected in March to lead the design phase.
“They’re going to guide us through the process of gathering community feedback, mapping our needs and hopes and helping us see what those dollars will buy,” board chairwoman Lisa Larson-Torres said. “That’s the process that we’re kicking off with tonight, so again we are so glad you’re here, grateful for your time, your voice and your ideas.”
What exactly the schools will look like will be informed by community input, VMDO architects said. A community design team of more than 40 people will lead that effort and hold several public meetings over the course of the summer to review VMDO’s plans.
Thirty spots on the design team are open to students, parents, school staff and other community members; VMDO is recruiting people to join that team. Students under the age of 12 are encouraged to apply with a parent. For more information and to apply, go to charlottesvilleschools.org/facilities.
The City Council and the School Board are expected to decide in October on the size and scope of the project as well as how much to spend.
Currently, $50 million has been included as a placeholder in the city’s capital improvement program though costs could range from $48 million to $98 million, depending on the project’s scope. Councilors and the School Board appeared supportive a $75 to $80 million price tag during a work session last week, if other revenue sources could be found.
To get the project off the ground, the city will most likely have to raise the real estate tax rate by at least 10 cents and hold off on future capital projects, officials have said.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Wyck Knox, the principal architect on the project for VMDO, and others with the firm walked the nearly 60 attendees through a presentation that was similar to what City Council and the School Board have heard recently.
Knox cautioned that the design process is just that — a process — and that design options will get “less wrong” over the ensuing months.
“And we’re gonna keep going through it,” he said. “But the only way to do that is to be open and talk to everyone, because we know that the best ideas are going to come from all kinds of places, including people that aren’t yet on this call and haven’t even clued in to the reconfiguration process.”
Attendees also shared visions, concerns and questions about the project. Broadly, individuals were excited about the prospect of upgrading the facilities, providing a space designed for preschools and cutting down on transitions between schools.
However, several people were concerned that the project would never happen and that funding concerns would lead to an inadequate renovation. Others were concerned about learning logistics during construction and ensuring that the outreach process includes diverse voices.
Those who participated in the meeting asked about how the project will support potential enrollment growth over the next two decades, whether it is actually needed, how current capacity needs at Walker will be addressed, the outreach plans and how supporters can advocate for the funding.
Near the end of the meeting, attendees also discussed which groups should be included in the outreach and how to reach those people.
People can also weigh in via an online survey at surveymonkey.com/r/CCSGETINVOLVED.
Kristen Hill, a community engagement specialist with VMDO, said they first want to hear about what options they should explore and why before refining designs in July and August.
The goal, Knox said, is to have plans ready for broader community feedback by the start of the school year in August. That way the design team can take advantage of back-to-school events to hear from as many people as possible.
“I think the first day of school on the 25th of August should be a huge day of celebration in our community,” Knox said. “We’re finally back from the pandemic, and it’s a point where I think the work of the community design team needs to take advantage of that celebration and say, ‘Hey, let’s look forward to what we can be. Here’s all the work we’ve done over the summer, and here’s all the different ways that we could possibly look at reconfiguration.’”
VMDO’s outreach plan includes several options for community members to get involved in the project with the community design team as the most time intensive, according to the presentation. People who can’t attend each design meeting can be part of the Think Tank, attending meetings when they can or when there’s a topic of interest.
Any plans will be presented first to the design team in public meetings.
“So everyone sees everything at the same time,” Knox said. “It’s a method to build trust and to send the message that decisions haven’t already been made,”
Throughout the summer and beyond, the VMDO team is planning to hold neighborhood events and family activities to hear from people as well as release videos with updates on the process. Those updates will be available at charlottesvilleschools.org/facilities.
The reconfiguration project has been discussed off and on since 2009. School officials have said over the years that the project will help improve student learning and address achievement gaps by reducing transitions between schools and providing a better environment. The current buildings have noisy HVAC units, get little natural light and let in moisture, dirt and pollen, according to the presentation.
Buford and Walker opened in 1966 as separate middle schools, which was the same year the last city school desegregated, according to a VMDO timeline.
“So we came out of this process and we built something that was literally separate but equal and literally separated by a train track,” Knox said.
The schools changed to the current setup in 1988 as a result of disparities in the schools’ demographics. The city has not built a new school since 1974, though it has worked to update the elementary schools on a smaller scale annually since 2017.
The next meeting will be 6 p.m. June 15.