Construction of the planned Buford Middle School expansion could start within the next year if plans don’t get changed in the next 11 months.
The $68.8 million project will be the city’s largest capital investment in schools since the construction of Charlottesville High School in 1974.
Charlottesville-based VMDO Architects is working on the second phase of the project’s design, which includes creating more detailed plans. Those designs will be sent to a cost estimator next month.
From there, VMDO will create construction documents that the city will eventually send out in order to get bids from contractors to build the project.
“That’s the biggie: [Construction documents] and bids,” said Kim Powell, chief operating officer for Charlottesville City Schools. “Then the roller coaster is going full speed after that.”
Buford’s expansion and renovation is the first phase of a reconfiguration project for the school system that’s been in the works since 2009. This is the closest to construction that the project has been since discussions began.
The project would switch which schools certain school grades attend and reverse a decades-old setup by moving sixth graders to Buford and fifth graders back to the elementary schools. Walker Upper Elementary School, which fifth and sixth graders currently attend, would be eliminated and converted into a preschool center.
At Buford, the project includes a new and bigger gym as well as a three-story academic wing. The main academic building also will be heavily renovated. Changes include moving the main entrance to the same level as the parking lot, expanding the library and adding fully accessible, gender-neutral bathrooms throughout the school.
Because of funding constraints, current plans do not include renovating the school’s auditorium.
The Charlottesville City Council included $66.3 million in the second year of its five-year capital improvement program for the Buford redesign. The capital improvement plan is part of the city’s annual budget, but only the first year of the plan has money designated for it.
Whether to fund the project, and at what level, was a focus of council’s budget discussions this past spring. Ultimately councilors settled on spending $66.3 million starting in next fiscal year for the project as well as $2.5 million this year to finish the design phase.
City Council also approved raising the tax rate by one cent to help pay for the project.
A final decision on whether to stick with the current plan will be made as part of the budget cycle for fiscal year 2024. In the meantime, work on the project’s design continues with a goal to break ground in July 2023. A site plan already has been submitted to the city for review.
“The biggest threat is inflation,” said Wyck Knox, the project leader for VMDO.
Knox said he’s bracing for the cost estimates to come back over budget.
“Not because the project is changing, but because things are where things are,” he said.
After this round of cost estimates, VMDO will move on to the next phase and create construction documents. VMDO will have the cost of those plans estimated before Thanksgiving and prior to starting the procurement process.
Construction on the next wing is expected to take two years, Knox said. One of the first steps will be to tear down the gym. Students will use the nearby Boys and Girls Club’s gym during those two years.
Once the new wing is built, students and classes will move into that building and renovation of the main building will commence. Knox said he expects that to take about a year before the new Buford will be ready for sixth graders in August 2026.
If that timeline holds, Charlottesville students who are going into the third grade this August could be the first group of sixth graders to attend Buford Middle School since the 1980s.