The multi-million dollar renovation and expansion of Buford Middle School, the first phase of reconfiguring Charlottesville City Schools to bring all middle grades under one roof, drew more attention at Wednesday’s joint meeting between city council and the School Board than a proposed $4 million request.
The Buford expansion is lead in to a multi-pronged project to consolidate middle grades in one building, send fifth grade back to the elementary schools and consolidate preschool at the current Walker Upper Elementary campus.
The discussion among councilors and School Board members largely focused on the reasons for the project, which has been the topic of several meetings over the last year.
“The issue for us on council is what we can afford,” Mayor Lloyd Snook said near the end of the discussion.
There was little discussion about the school division’s $4,039,070 request from the city. That’s about $670,000 more than what the division would receive via an unofficial formula and would cover cost increases in contracts with the city for transportation and maintenance as well as a $15,000 storm water tax, according to the presentation.
In a twist on hybrid meetings, school board members gathered in person at Charlottesville High School’s library for the meeting while councilors and city staff joined virtually.
This is schools Superintendent Royal Gurley Jr.’s first budget with the division. For the city, Consultant Michael C. Rogers is serving as interim city manager and will take the lead on the budget process. He started that role Monday.
Gurley discussed the initial spending plan with the School Board last month and will formally present the funding request at Thursday’s meeting.
The latest round of reconfiguration designs for Buford came in at $82 million, which is $7 million more than the $75 million budget. That led VMDO Architects, which is leading the project to look at cost reductions.
“I’m going to show you things that aren’t going to be popular,” said Wyck Knox, the project manager for VMDO. “These are our suggestions. No one has endorsed them.”
Knox said current economic inflation has led to higher cost estimates. Usually at this point in schematic design, cost estimates might be a bit more expensive but not $7 million, he said.
Potential changes include reducing the square foot per student from 151 to 146, not building out a garden, eliminating a proposed track around the existing soccer field, expanded parking and outdoor dining area.
Those alternates among other changes will be sent out to a cost estimator this week, and then a working group of city and school officials will review those.
The Buford renovations and changes are in the city’s five-year capital improvement plan after councilors voted in October to include a $75 million line item but paying for the project will likely require some combination of tax rate increases, city officials have said. The city’s request for proposals directed VMDO to design a project within $50 million to $80 million.
City leaders are currently seeking authorization from the General Assembly to ask voters to approve 1% local sales tax hike. That tax revenue, about $12 million, would go directly to school construction projects.
House Republicans recently killed three House bills relating to a sales tax increase, though similar legislation from the state Senate could still pass.
VMDO needs an answer of whether to move forward with the project by about March 17. The goal is to put the project to bid by February 2023.
The March 17 council meeting will fall after the current legislative session, meaning councilors will know the fate of the sales tax bill by then.
Following the presentation, councilors sought more information about the need and expected outcomes of the project.
Councilor Sena Magill said she understands the schools need massive renovations, but expressed confusion about how the reconfiguration will address equity concerns.
“What is it about the magic of reconfiguration that is supposed to be addressing our equity needs?” she asked. “I would love to understand that better.”
Councilor Michael Payne said he wanted to see peer-reviewed research and a meta-analysis of school districts that have made similar changes and how it affected achievement gaps.
School Board members and division staff reiterated points previously made about the need for the project, from improving the physical learning environment to providing more stability for students.
Kim Powell, the division’s assistant superintendent for finance and operations, said the buildings themselves are safe but that maintenance alone can’t fix the noisy HVAC units or provide more natural light.
Powell encouraged councilors to visit Buford and Walker and to see schools in other communities.
“Experience that contrast between what we have and what school districts all around us have,” she said. “And I’m talking about communities that are not as well-resourced like Buckingham and Greene. They don’t have any buildings that are anything like what you have at Walker and Buford.