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First phase of city schools reconfiguration to cost $75 million

After more than than a decade of discussion, what exactly the Charlottesville reconfiguration project could look like is finally coming into focus.

Over the course of seven hours this week, a design committee settled on a recommendation and a $73 million price tag for the expansion and renovation of Buford Middle School, the first phase of the project.

Reconfiguration entails adding sixth grade to Buford, sending fifth-graders to the elementary schools and converting Walker Upper Elementary into an early childhood center.

As part of the first phase of the project, Walker would be converted into a temporary facility for preschoolers, which would cost $1.35 million. Furniture for the fifth-grade classrooms at the elementary schools would cost $425,000, bringing the overall estimate to $74.8 million, if construction started today.

The standalone early childhood center would cost about $22.4 million but that would be built as part of a future phase of the project.

City councilors seemed to support the cost during a joint work session this week with the School Board. City staff said a 15-cent real estate tax rate increase would be needed to pay for reconfiguration, other capital projects and a $4.5 million increase for the city school division’s operating budget.

To help pay for the project, councilors decided to use money already allocated for the West Main streetscape — the fate of which has been discussed several times in the past year.

“There are going to be a lot of limitations for this group of people and future councils for many years ahead,” Councilor Heather Hill said. “I don’t think there’s anyone that doesn’t prioritize this. We’re at a point where we have to move forward and make this commitment, but it doesn’t come without a lot of weight right now.”

The tax rate increase is just an estimate at this point. Specific numbers will be determined during the budgeting process. The city has included a $50 million placeholder in its five-year capital improvement program, though a group of city and school officials agreed in June to a $60 million goal for the first phase.

The latest round of cost estimates put the Buford phase at $66 million to $73 million, if the buildings were significantly renovated.

“These are very much at or even a little below what schools cost and average school cost these days and in the commonwealth of Virginia,” said Wyck Knox, the project manager for VMDO Architects, referencing data from current projects throughout the state.

The City Council will decide next month on a funding amount for the project, which will be formally presented at the council’s Oct. 4. In March, the council will make the final decision about whether to commit the necessary funding.

For $73 million, the school would get a three-story addition in front of the current academic 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.

That so-called heavy renovation was a non-negotiable for the community design team made up of school division staff, city officials, parents and teachers, which met Tuesday to finalize its recommendation.

“Heavily renovate whatever it is,” said Michele Bambury, a science teacher at Buford and member of the design team, at Tuesday’s meeting “I work in that space every day and the heating systems are terrible. We have to do the heavy renovation.”

Bambury added that the current heating and air system is loud and doesn’t evenly heat her room.

For Bambury, getting the renovations actually done is a priority.

“If we say we need the most expensive option, it’s going to get pushed back, and three to five years down the road, we’re still going to be arguing about it,” she said. “… Part of it is that we need to get this done.”

During the work session Wednesday, councilors said they supported the overall project, though they were worried about the impact of a 15-cent tax rate increase on taxpayers and the real estate tax relief program. Funding the project at $75 million 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.

City officials, councilors and School Board members said they want 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%.

That would bring in about $12 million a year, City Manager Chip Boyles said Wednesday.

“If we are able to get that and pass it in our community, that changes everything,” Boyles said.

Councilors said they could only see the West Main project continuing if the sales tax is approved. Councilor Lloyd Snook said he was convinced that there was not a good path forward that includes the West Main project or the Seventh Street parking garage.

“Unless we get that other money from the ability to impose extra sales tax, there are a whole lot of things we’re not going to be able to do,” he said.

Walker and Buford were constructed in 1966. The 55-year-old buildings consume more energy than typical, have noisy HVAC units and leak moisture, dirt and pollen, according to VMDO.

The idea of reconfiguring the schools has swirled around since 2007 as an answer to growth and as a way to improve student outcomes. Officials have said this most recent effort is aimed at addressing longstanding equity concerns about the buildings.

The project has never gotten as far as it is currently, with a design scheme and renderings.

“The students who have traditionally been attending Walker and Buford and the parents who have been unable to pull their kids out I think is a big factor in why those two schools have been able to deteriorate in the way they have,” Mayor Nikuyah Walker said. “You can also see that in the elementary schools, which schools were invested and which were not. I think that we need to look at this from that standpoint, too. Our kids deserve better than they’ve been receiving over the years, and how do you make that a priority?”

Reconfiguration is expected to be the largest school construction project since Charlottesville High School opened in 1974.

“Back in 2007, the community and city of Charlottesville decided on reconfiguration,” Acting Superintendent Jim Henderson said. “That’s before many of the projects you are talking about. … We really have got to figure out how to make this work. To keep postponing reconfiguration isn’t the best thing for the kids of Charlottesville.”

During public comment at Wednesday’s meeting, parents encouraged the City Council to support the project and associated tax increases. They also pledged to help pass the additional sales tax.

“What’s currently there doesn’t necessarily address equity, the double transitions are challenging — I can tell from a firsthand perspective — and I think access to pre-K is challenging here, so what’s being presented here has ripples that go far beyond just the initial capital investment, and I think the benefit will far outweigh this short-term tax conundrum,” said Michael Joy, a Charlottesville parent.

Holly Hatcher, another Charlottesville parent, implored the city and school division to “leave no stone unturned” in terms of looking for other funding options or resources to make the project happen.

“You have a community of parents who want to work with you and support you in this effort,” she said. “We know it’s a long game. It’s not just about Buford and Walker. We know it’s about quality pre-K-12 education and beyond.”

Design team

During a four-hour meeting Tuesday, the design team worked through different design options for Walker and Buford to make a final recommendation to the City Council and the School Board.

Conversations about Buford made up the bulk of the committee’s discussions. VMDO Architects presented the committee with three design options with varying levels of renovation. With a heavy renovation, the three options would cost $66 million to $73 million. The $66 million option had the least new construction, retained the current gym and didn’t meet the state average of 151 square feet per student.

A heavy renovation of Buford’s academic and arts buildings would cost about $27.7 million — $8.2 million of which would go toward the arts or B building.

Michael Allen, the band director at Buford, told the committee and elected officials that the current arts building doesn’t meet the school’s needs.

“We have a band room that will not fit my entire ensemble,” he said. “Our instrumental classrooms are bursting at the seams with no storage or equipment. Our largest ensembles do not fit on our stage, and our chorus and drama classes are without dedicated classroom space.”

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.

School Board member Jennifer McKeever said during the design meeting that she expected pushback from the city on the price tag.

“We have to start from a place with a vision for the future,” she said. “I think we need to go them with Option 3.1 and say this is what our middle-schoolers in our city will need as an investment for another generation,” McKeever said.

Option 3.1 was what the design team ended up recommending.

For information about the project, go to charlottesvillecityschools.org/facilities.

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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