Addressing overcrowding at Mountain View Elementary is a top priority for the Albemarle County School Board, but the solution remains unclear because of competing needs within the school system.
Still, a majority of board members said last week that the project should be ranked first among a list of 11 projects recommended by the division’s Long-Range Advisory Committee. At the end of last school year, the school system considered moving fifth-graders at Mountain View to Walton Middle School because of overcrowding at the school. However, officials backed off that plan after parents pushed back and called for a long-term solution to the school’s capacity issues.
“It seems like we shouldn’t let things get to this breaking point,” School Board member Ellen Osborne said, adding that adequate capacity in the southern end of the county was a top consideration for her. “… It’s not like people are going to stop wanting to move to Albemarle County, so capacity is always going to be an issue.”
Osborne represents the Scottsville magisterial district, which includes Mountain View and the southern parts of the county.
The School Board will discuss the committee’s recommendations with the Board of Supervisors during a joint meeting Wednesday afternoon. The committee’s recommended projects for the next five years total $196.2 million. From 2016 to 2020, the county spent $101 million on school-related projects.
The committee’s top-ranked project was the construction of a new $32 million high school center, which has been in the works for several years as part of a multi-pronged plan to redesign the high school experience and current and projected capacity issues at Albemarle and Western Albemarle high schools.
Some board members were more skeptical of the high school center model and making it a priority over projects to ease elementary school overcrowding. The committee also called for a new elementary school to serve the northern area of the county, which board members were supportive of. The division has not built a new school since 2002.
“Mountain View capacity is more important than building an additional center at this point because it’s such a pressing need at the moment,” board member Katrina Callsen said. “While I hate to be reactive like that, it’s just true. I could see moving that to the top.”
A $6.2 million expansion of Mountain View already is in the works, but that’s a short-term solution. Student enrollment is expected to exceed the new capacity by fall 2023. The division has hired a consultant to find a long-term answer, and an update on that effort will be provided in the next few weeks, division spokesman Phil Giaramita.
At a community meeting over the summer, the consulting firm said recommendations could include building a new school, an expansion, redistricting or some combination of those three.
“I agree that Mountain View has got to be a priority,” board member David Oberg said. “We have to do something… But I don’t want to lose the centers. We put a lot of work into the centers. I don’t want to lose that. That was us being proactive.”
Oberg is one of four current board members who voted in December 2017 to pursue the center model, which the division piloted during the 2018-19 school year with the opening of Center 1. Work on the new center paused during the pandemic.
Other board members echoed Oberg that the high school center should continue.
“We do need to focus on high school capacity I do think,” board member Kate Acuff said. “A whisker behind are the two elementary schools.”
The School Board will have a work session later this month about the high center model.
“But possibly because I was not on the board at the time, I’m unconvinced about the centers,” board member Judy Le said. “I haven’t yet seen them be equitable among students, particularly students who don’t have access to transportation. I know we are getting better with demographics. I’m looking forward to learning more and seeing it fresh during the work session.”
Osbourne said she thought the board should focus on elementary overcrowding first because that’s when students form their first impressions about school.
“To continually have things that are overcrowded, I think we can do better for those first impressions of school,” she said. “I think things like the center 2, I have not seen the community demand for it that I have seen for other capacity projects. At the high school level, there are still opportunities for us to be more creative to solve capacity issues.”
Board member Kate Acuff said the committee’s top three projects — the high school center, Mountain View and new elementary school in the northern area — are “gotta haves” in the next few years.
Oberg suggested that the board take affordability into account as it weighed how to rank the projects, considering how many projects don’t receive funding each year.
“ I think we have repeatedly said what we absolutely need for our kids and the answer is routinely no,” he said. “I get frustrated … this is our plan and what we want to do and we know what’s necessary. … That’s why we routinely have overcrowding. That’s the issue at Mountain View.”
The supervisors have the final say on which capital projects get funded each year, though a joint committee made up of board members and supervisors work together to make a recommendation. Overcrowding and growth in student enrollment have driven many of the capital-related decisions in recent years.
“Capacity is a huge issue, and it’s a huge issue because we’ve had chronic underfunding of infrastructure, of capital,” board member Kate Acuff said.
Acuff said she wanted to see the county get on a schedule on bond referendums to fund school projects. The county has finished projects funded by the $35 million referendum that passed in 2016 with 73% of the vote.
Board member Jonno Alcaro said that the board would need to be creative in how it requested funding for capital projects and looked for financing options.
“Is that a referendum again or start of a number of referendums over the next five years or 10 years?” Alcaro said. “There are other options that the Board of Supervisors have in their bag. That’s gonna be a top issue for us is getting the money that we need once the priorities are set in terms of what projects are of most import to us.”