After talking about Buford Middle School and the Charlottesville school division’s planned reconfiguration project in virtual meetings for several months, the project’s community design team explored the campus and continued brainstorming on how to improve the space.
The team held its first in-person meeting Tuesday since the design process kicked off earlier this summer. A similar meeting planned for Saturday at Walker Upper Elementary School has been postponed. The design team will have another virtual meeting Aug. 17, which is open to the public. For more information, visit charlottesvilleschools.org/facilities.
As part of the current reconfiguration plan, preschool classrooms would move to Walker, fifth grade would return to the elementaries and sixth grade would go to Buford.
Charlottesville-based VMDO Architects led Tuesday’s meeting, which was focused on hearing from the community about the current Buford building. Attendees were asked to consider how the different spaces worked for students, staff, parents and visitors, as well as where they noticed space for self-directed learning, reflection and physical movement, among other bullet points. The VMDO team will compile those takeaways and present them at the next CDT meeting, as they have at previous meetings.
After presentations about the design process so far and research about middle schools, several students from Cultivate Charlottesville’s Food Justice Intern program shared what the school’s City Schoolyard Garden means to them and the benefits of the current location. Some of the initial plans for an addition at Buford would entail moving the garden to another location on the campus.
The meeting was the first since the group of city and school officials leading the project decided to funnell all initial funding toward the expansion and renovation of Buford after receiving higher than expected cost estimates. That group also decided on $60 million for the Buford phase of the project to start in Fiscal Year 2024, which is a year earlier and $10 million more than the current placeholder included in the city’s five-year Capital Improvement Plan.
The City Council will decide on a concept design and funding amount in October.
The dream versions of the project would cost, on average, $123 million. That includes a full renovation of Buford and building a standalone early childhood center at Walker, improvements to the buildings’ ventilation and other upgrades.
“The numbers were astronomical and aren’t anywhere realistic for what we can afford for the city,” Wyck Knox, the architect leading the project for VMDO, said of the estimates.
City officials have said that to pay for a $50 million project, the City Council would have to raise the real estate tax rate by 10 cents — four of which would go to the schools. A $75 million hypothetical project would mean a 12-cent increase, half of which would go to the schools, according to a presentation at Tuesday’s meeting.
The city’s property tax rate is currently 95 cents per $100 of assessed value, and the state average is $1.04, according to the presentation.
Chris Meyer, a city parent, asked what people should do if they aren’t happy with the $60 million figure.
City Manager Chip Boyles said they should talk to a city councilor and “tell them how much you’re willing to pay more.”
Knox echoed Boyles and added that the city is working hard to look at different options for funding the project.
“But if you think this first round needs to be more than [$60 million], then you need to speak up,” he said.
School Board members, as well as candidates for the board and the City Council, attended Tuesday along with members of the community design team.
VMDO is working on three different schemes at Buford for $60 million, which will be sent off to cost estimators later this month, as well as a plan for preschool at Walker until a standalone facility is constructed.
The interim plan at Walker would include minimal capital investment to accommodate the preschoolers. The design team was directed to prioritize outdoor learning spaces and portable investments, such as in furniture.
Funding for that standalone building probably wouldn’t come from the city but rather through a sales tax increase that would have to be approved by the General Assembly and voters, as well as private donations.
For $20 million, Knox said he thought they could do a lot of work at Walker.
“It depends on scope, how much site work and what we do for wraparound services,” he said.
The School Board will have a special meeting Sept. 23 to review the final design options before they are sent to the City Council.