After months of deliberation, the Charlottesville School Board has settled on a plan to consolidate the city’s middle schools, but the heavy lifting of figuring out what it will cost — and how to pay for it — has only just begun.
In a move that early estimates peg at $36 million, administrators plan to make Buford Middle the city’s only middle school while converting Walker Upper Elementary into a combination center for preschool, adult education and central offices.
Walker currently houses the fifth and sixth grades, but under the plan scheduled to go into effect for the 2015-16 school year, the sixth grade would move to Buford and the fifth grade would be distributed among the city’s six elementary schools.
The division has predicted savings of up to $570,000 per year, but some doubt the figure would be that high.
Jim Henderson, the assistant superintendent for administration services, said the division will save at least $160,000 by ending leases at the Henry Avenue Learning Center and the Adult Learning Center in the Frank Ix building downtown. Henderson said there will likely be more savings due to decreased energy and transportation costs, but it might not amount to $570,000.
Superintendent Rosa S. Atkins said the move will improve the system’s educational environment by reducing the number of school transitions for students and giving them time to develop better relationships with their peers. The reconfiguration would also allow the division to revitalize its science and technology offerings for middle-schoolers, Atkins said.
In order for the funding discussion to begin in earnest, administrators hope to come up with preliminary designs and more concrete estimates for each site by the end of the year. Under a tentative schedule, the city would issue an RFP in 2013 and begin renovations in summer 2014. For the 2014 school year, grades 6-8 would be temporarily housed in Walker while rising fifth-graders would stay at the elementary schools.
City Manager Maurice Jones said the reconfiguration is one of the looming “big-ticket items” that will have to be absorbed by the Capital Improvement Program fund, a move that could require the city to raise its debt service limit. The current maximum is set at 8 percent of general fund operating expenditures. Under Jones's proposed budget for fiscal 2011-12, debt service makes up 5.14 percent of total operating expenditures.
The CIP provides funding for infrastructure projects costing more than $50,000 that have a useful life of more than five years.
Henderson said the plan could change depending on how much funding the City Council is willing to commit.
“They might only have money to do one of the things that are listed,” Henderson said. “They could say it’s beyond our funding capabilities and we’ll have to make do with what we have.”
Henderson said extra space for classrooms and parking will definitely need to be added at Buford, but it’s too early to tell what the renovation would look like at Walker.
The $36 million estimate relies largely on square-footage rather than in-depth designs, Henderson said, adding that the final number could be far more or far less.
“I wouldn’t even bet what I have in my pocket on it,” Henderson said.
School Board Chairwoman Leah Puryear called the number a “guesstimate” and said the cost between doing the reconfiguration and doing nothing is nominal because Buford needs structural upgrades regardless.
Puryear also praised the council’s “marvelous job” of supporting the school division.
“We know that we’re in tight economic times,” Puryear said. “But they’ve asked: ‘If all was right in the world, and we just had to write you the check, what would that require?’”
For now, administrators are working to give the council and School Board as much information as possible by the end of the year.
Chelsea Ralston, the parent of a sixth-grader at Walker and a third-grader at Greenbrier Elementary, said when she heard of the proposal, she didn’t think it would happen.
“It really feels like, why fix something if it’s not broken?” Ralston said. “It just doesn’t make sense to me to go into debt over this. If they can pay for that, why don’t they pay the teachers better?”
Between November and January, the division conducted two public forums, a survey and a telephone town hall, which Puryear said proves that plenty was done to get the word out about the possible change.
According to the results of the survey, which generated 396 responses on paper and online, 46.3 percent of respondents chose Walker as the site of the new middle school, 45.3 percent chose Buford and 8.4 percent chose either.
“At the end of the day, no one can say they were not heard,” Puryear said.
The last large-scale change to the city school system occurred in 1988, when the current configuration between Walker and Buford went into effect.