When rain falls, the gym at Buford Middle School floods. Even on sunny days, students in wheelchairs can’t get to the gym without using a service road around back. The front door for the school requires negotiating two flights of stairs.
Last week, sewage backed up into the building.
Students, said schools Superintendent Royal Gurley Jr., deserve better. They deserve more than the school’s dark, cramped classrooms, noisy HVAC units and outdated infrastructure.
“No child should have to learn like this,” he said on a recent tour of the building with city staff members and two city councilors to help officials better understand the need.
An extensive renovation and expansion of Buford Middle School is being planned, but the final funding decision falls on a conflicted Charlottesville City Council. Although the council in October voted to support a $75 million revamping project, council members now are having second thoughts, leaving the renovation of Buford in doubt.
"We’re in a pretty ridiculous position right now of needing to raise taxes by 10 cents and still freeze our budget for about a decade for one building,” Councilor Michael Payne said in a recent interview. “I understand the School Board’s frustration from their end, but we’ve got to figure out how to move forward because right now, it’s not working.”
Cheaper options have been presented to a working group of city and school officials that vary in scope of work and range from $51.8 million to $76.8 million. Only two of the options would address accessibility issues on the Buford campus.
The renovation would bring the 57-year-old school up to modern standards and better support students with more natural lighting in classrooms, more spaces to collaborate and a more secure campus.
Buford’s renovation is the first phase of a multi-pronged reconfiguration project for the school system that’s been in the works since 2009. In the project, the upper elementary school would be eliminated, sixth graders would join seventh and eighth grades at Buford and fifth graders would go back to their elementary schools for one more year.
City budget officials have said paying for the project and other city priorities would require a 10 cent increase in the real estate tax rate, which is currently 95 cents per $100 of assessed value.
At current rates, the owner of a $375,000 single-family home pays $3,562.50 in property taxes — a bill split into two payments a year. A 10-cent tax rate increase would mean that homeowner would pay $375 more per year, $31.25 more per month or $187.50 more on each semiannual payment. Real estate assessments in Charlottesville have increased by an average of 11.69% in 2022, so that owner is already seeing a property tax bill about $373 higher than last year.
About half of the additional $9,275,770 from that increase would go toward the school project, according to city budget presentations. A five-cent tax increase and a $75 million schools project would max out the city’s debt capacity for several years, starting in 2028, officials have projected.
More detailed funding strategies regarding this project have not been publicly presented to City Council.
The city has been planning to start construction at Buford next July. To stick to that timeline, City Council needs to allocate money to continue the design work and decide by this month whether to move forward with the project as it’s currently estimated, though that deadline could be pushed back according to mid-April, according VMDO Architects, the firm leading the project. The current capital budget includes $2.5 million for VMDO to keep working.
A tour tells the story
School board member James Bryant attended Walker when it first opened in 1966 and later taught at the school. Following a recent tour of Buford, Bryant said he was “overwrought with grief.”
“When I walked into that building, I felt like I had gone back 50 years,” he said at Thursday’s meeting. “As a former teacher and school counselor, I felt that our children were being deprived.”
Bryant specifically pointed out the classrooms that used to be conference rooms, lack of windows and a “gymnasium in disarray.”
Buford, which serves the seventh and eighth grades, sits on 18 acres between Cherry and Forest Hills Avenues along with the Boys and Girls Club and Smith Aquatic Center.
In Virginia, the average age of middle school buildings is 46 years; the oldest is 114 years old. Charlottesville’s school buildings are 65 years old, on average. The newest school, Charlottesville High School, was built in 1974.
Buford’s current campus is made up of four buildings. The main academic building is known as Building A, the arts building is known as B, a small classroom building is known as D and the gym, which was built into the side of a hill. The gym and D building would be torn down under the renovation plan because of air quality concerns and accessibility issues.
The building’s decor is a hodgepodge of differing wall and floor tiles that mark the many Buford eras, from the original structure to the newer science labs built in 2013. A glass wall in D serves as a reminder of a futile effort years ago to connect it to the main academic building.
Buford’s original boiler is still in use. The classroom console units for heating and cooling — similar to what’s used in a motel — can only handle MERV-rated air filters of 8 or below.
Since the COVID pandemic, a MERV-13 filter is the recommended minimum for a school building.
From a security standpoint, the campus doesn’t meet basic standards, Gurley said. Buford and Walker were both built when the open and airy campus plan was in vogue. The main entrances for both schools, as well as administrative offices, are down two flights of stairs and don’t ensure that visitors have to go through the main office. There are a multitude of exterior doors.
None of the buildings on either school’s grounds connect to each other, forcing students to go outside to move about the campus.
Gurley said students are vulnerable during passing periods because of the layout. Principal Rodney Jordan added on the tour that there are several blind spots, which requires more adults to be on the lookout.
“The most vulnerable time of the day is when the students have to change class going from the B building back to the main building,” he said. “We owe our students more than that.”
School Board member Sherry Kraft said the community needs to find a way forward on the project.
“We just do,” she said. “In the end, the message that our students are getting. That this is the kind of facility that we expect them to be in, to do well, to thrive, be happy, and to grow. It was kind of shocking to see the spaces and to realize the severe state of disrepair that the building was in. We really have to do better for our kids.”
A major makeover
The expansion and renovation would double Buford’s capacity to more than 1,000 students. A new three-story academic wing could accommodate about 624 students, which is more than Buford’s current enrollment of 593. The school also would get a new and bigger gym as part of the expansion.
In the main academic building, current design plans call for a bigger library, among other changes. Currently small, windowless classrooms surround the library and are used for special education, English language learners and intervention services. Those rooms would make way for the expanded library that would be accessible from the main office, which would move to the second floor.
The remodel plans include 101,972 square feet of new construction at a cost of $34 million, which is more square footage than the current campus. About 78,991 square feet of the campus would be renovated. Sitework on the campus would cost about $6.9 million.
A full renovation of the A and B buildings would cost $24 million, according to the latest estimates. That includes fully accessible, gender-neutral bathrooms throughout the school; new lighting, ceilings and floors; added natural light in classrooms; a new interior layout of the main academic building; an expanded stage; replacement of aging HVAC units; modernization of the kitchen equipment; and upgrades to the exterior walls.
Gurley said necessities in a school building in 2022 are different than they were 50 years ago.
“What’s a necessity? It’s a building that inspires collaboration, innovation, and that’s meeting basic needs. Those weren’t the pressing things in the ‘70s and ‘80s,” Gurley said. “I just don’t feel like we’re meeting the basic hierarchical needs at this point.”
Newer buildings have more accessible libraries and a variety of spaces where students can gather to work together or hear a speaker, he said.
“You can’t do things like that inside of this building, so it’s the absence of a lot of the things you will see right now in the 21st century,” he said.
Beyond the bricks
Compared to the division overall, Buford has regularly had a higher percentage of students of color and low-income students over the last 15 years. That, officials say, is the result of more affluent families withdrawing their children from the school system during the middle school years.
A decade of enrollment data analyzed by The Daily Progress show that the percentage of white students does tend to slightly decline during the middle grades and then increases in the ninth grade. During the decade analyzed, percentages of white students division-wide remained steady at about 40%, give or take a few points.
Buford and Walker are the city schools currently only accredited with conditions because of poor student performance on state tests in the 2018-19 school year. Full accreditation is the goal under the state accountability system.
Buford also is the only school in the division under federal monitoring because of the academic challenges for Black male students.
Gurley said the school and division is making progress on boosting student achievement and shrinking the achievement gap by better planning and implementation of instruction, more accurate assessment of students and interventions when needed.
“All the research says you’ve got to give it three years, so we need to get [current principal, Rodney Jordan] in there way longer than three years so we can turn the needle on what needs to happen,” Gurley said.
Buford tends to have the highest number of vacancies among teachers and will likely have the most open positions to fill for next school year. Gurley said the churn reflects the difficulties of teaching at the middle school level, though he attributes some of it to the building itself.
Recruiting young teachers to Buford also can be challenging, given the state of the building, he said.
“Middle schools across America are tough when you think about the developmental needs of students,” Gurley said. “To only give it two years, that’s a big absence of a relationship there. When you look at what could happen in a [sixth through eighth grades school], for me, it’s the right thing to do.”
The school division moved to the current grade setup in 1988 in order to address demographic disparities in the schools, which were then both middle schools. Switching back to a more traditional system has been a goal of the School Board for decades because the transition between the schools disrupts students’ learning and relationships with teachers, officials have said.
Moving the fifth graders back to the elementary schools will provide more continuity for students and teachers and the ability to implement a more comprehensive K-5 literacy program, school officials have said.
“We talk a lot about Buford, but fifth-graders developmentally are elementary children,” Gurley said.
Scaled back solutions
Improving student performance is within the school division’s control. The condition of the building is not. Although state legislators are looking for ways that the state can help, local governments are largely responsible for funding school construction.
Councilors largely agree that the building is in need of repair but the high price tag — equivalent to the entire five-year capital improvement plan in fiscal year 2017 — and whether to actually moving grades are issues.
Latest cost estimates put the project at $76.8 million for the recommended option.
For $68.8 million, the city could renovate Buford’s main academic building but would need to delay the B building and change designs and materials used. Renovating A but not adding more windows and keeping the interior of the B building as-is would cost $72.3 million. Expanding, but not renovating the school would cost $51.8 million.
Renovating Buford and Walker but not reconfiguring grades would cost $67 million, about $33.5 million for each campus. Students also would likely need to be in classroom trailers during the construction.
Estimates include the construction costs as well as $7.15 million for soft expenses such as furniture and technology. The estimates are based on the current construction costs, which are higher than usual because of the pandemic and inflation.
City Councilor Brian Pinkston said he prefers the $68 million option.
“It still gets us a lot,” Pinkston said. “It gets reconfiguration done as a concept. It also gets a significant renovation done. So in my mind, it crosses off most of the things that are essential.”
Gurley and School Board Chairwoman Lisa Larson-Torres said they understand councilors have a decision to make, but they are sticking with what they believe is best for students.
“What we’re saying we need for our students hasn’t changed,” Larson-Torres said. “I think we’ve been transparent. VMDO has been out there engaging and offering all of this stuff. All of the information has been on our website. The question has been what can be funded and how can it be funded?”
Gurley and Larson-Torres didn’t want to propose delaying the project just yet.
Gurley said that in his experience, projects for the most underserved populations of people tend to get delayed or never actually happen. In Charlottesville, students who were in kindergarten when the School Board started discussing the project just graduated last year
“So that drives a little bit of why it is very important right now,” he said. “This is very important. If we can accomplish this right now, then let’s make it happen right now. Is a year gonna become another 10 years?”