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Charlottesville City Council, School Board weigh cost, financing of reconfiguration
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Charlottesville City Council, School Board weigh cost, financing of reconfiguration

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Walker Upper Elementary School is one of the schools that would be affected by the city’s planned reconfiguration project.

Charlottesville City Council and the School Board largely agreed Wednesday that the planned reconfiguration project is necessary and that the project should cost, at a minimum, $50 million.

Thus, Wednesday’s work session on the topic focused on the scope of the project, how much the city could afford and what level of tax rate increase city taxpayers would support.

“My child was at Walker [Upper Elementary School],” vice mayor Sena Magill said. “I know exactly how miserable these buildings feel. They feel like they were built during a time when these schools were built looking like prisons.”

Wednesday’s meeting was the first time the two elected bodies have discussed the reconfiguration project in detail since a $50 million placeholder was included in the five-year capital improvement program. Councilors have wrestled with the affordability of that project and competing capital priorities for months.

Charlottesville-based firm VMDO Architects is designing the project, which would add sixth grade to Buford Middle School, move the fifth grade to the elementary schools and convert Walker into an early childhood education center. At the work session, Wyck Knox with VMDO walked attendees through a truncated presentation from what was presented at the School Board’s retreat last week, and helped to facilitate the conversation around key questions such as the project’s budget range.

During the meeting, councilors and board members seemed supportive of an option that would cost in the $75-$80 million range, as long as other revenue becomes available. That revenue could come from a 1 cent increase to the local sales tax rate to fund school construction or private donations. The sales tax rate increase would generate $10 million a year, city officials said, but would have to be approved by the General Assembly and local voters.

“I think we have to look beyond the city coffers,” councilor Heather Hill said. “ … There are other avenues that we’re going to have to pursue for this plan to become a reality, because I don’t believe the $50 million is going to get us what we need. But we have to acknowledge what the limits are within this city.”

To pay for the current CIP, city staffers have suggested a 10-cent real estate tax rate increase spread out over five years, starting in Fiscal Year 2023.

Board member Jennifer McKeever said that another option could be for council to pause some other projects in its CIP.

“There’s no package of things that we could pause that would get you where you want to go,” councilor Lloyd Snook said.

McKeever replied that this process is a negotiation.

“We’re just trying to cobble together,” McKeever said. “We’re not getting to this in one easy way. We’re just trying to find a way forward.”

The discussion touched on how reconfiguration would adjust operational needs for the school division, how other policy decisions could affect the city’s population growth, the ripple effects of a tax rate increase on other budget items and timing of a potential tax rate increase.

School Board chairwoman Lisa Larson-Torres also highlighted how improving the two schools would address health inequities in the community, among other upsides.

“So there are so many potential positives that I think we also need to hang onto,” she said.

VMDO is kicking off the design phase of the project next week to hear from community members about what options they want to see.

“Our kickoff is an opportunity to dream big together,” said Kristen Hill with VMDO.

For more information about the kickoff meeting and how to get involved, go to charlottesvillecityschools.org/facilities.

During the work session, VMDO sought guidance on what kind of options they should bring to the community. Councilors and board members largely agreed that VMDO could show options ranging from $50 million to $90 million as long as the cost implications, such as the tax rate increase, are explained, among other qualifications.

“We don’t want the public to be presented with ideas that we can’t do,” Hill said.

VMDO has created six options for the school ranging from $48 million to $98 million, which were presented to the School Board last week. Those conceptual designs were largely a math exercise rather than design-driven to figure out what cost would be feasible. Fleshing out the concepts will come next as the architects talk to community members during the design phase.

Council and board members did agree that any project should include a higher capacity at Buford Middle School, either 975 or 1,050. Some of the cheaper options capped Buford’s capacity at 900, which would serve the current student population.

By the meeting’s end, Knox said his team had enough to begin the next step. A final decision on whether to move forward on the project is expected in October.

“I think we’ve progressed the conversation a lot in six weeks,” Knox said.

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