Walker Upper Elementary School

Students eat lunch in the cafeteria at Walker Upper Elementary School in Charlottesville.

Charlottesville City Schools is planning to request capital funding to reconfigure its middle school and add a centralized preschool, a plan the division has considered several times over the last 10 years.

“We need to move,” School Board member Leah Puryear said Wednesday during a work session. “We’ve been talking about it long enough.”

Board members received an introduction to the division’s fiscal year 2020 budget and a preview of state funding possibilities during its first budget work session Wednesday. At later meetings, the board will look at revenues, expenses and budget requests. At the end of February, the board will approve a proposed budget and send it to the City Council for its consideration.

Kim Powell, assistant superintendent for finance and operations, highlighted the division’s growing enrollment in her presentation, as well as a facilities plan to address the board’s priorities. The board wants to focus on equity, upgrading facilities, decreasing middle-year transitions and expanding early childhood education.

For an additional $55 million, the School Board could renovate and add all of the city’s sixth-graders to Buford Middle School, sending fifth-graders back to the elementary schools. Preschool programs would then be centralized at the current Walker Upper Elementary, with increased wraparound services, such as parental support programs.

The City Council would need to approve funding for the project, which would be included in the city’s Capital Improvement Program.

The school system’s budget for the current year is approximately $84 million.

Superintendent Rosa Atkins said the plan factors in the division’s growth, equity issues, adolescent development and what’s best for students.

“The $55 million represents moving our school division to position itself to respond to all of those needs simultaneously,” she said.

The plan builds off conversations started last year after a study from VMDO Architects projected that five of the city’s six elementary schools soon will exceed their functional capacity.

VMDO partnered with the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service to make enrollment projections based on population growth and development trends in Charlottesville. The firm forecasted the division’s enrollment to grow to 5,190 by 2026, up from the current 4,561.

The centralized preschool could accommodate about 258 students. The move would open up 340 seats in the division’s elementary schools because those grades have larger class sizes.

Concerns about capacity have continued as Charlottesville has seen more residential construction.

Powell told board members that projects either under construction or approved would add more than 700 residential units. That could mean about 200 to 300 more students, according to the division’s conservative estimate. More housing developments are being planned, as well.

The plan outlined Wednesday doesn’t fully address capacity issues at the elementary schools, which have seen growing enrollment in recent years, board members conceded. The board is continuing to look at options for the division’s elementary schools, which currently serve students through the fourth grade.

“I think we have to do both at the same time,” School Board member Jennifer McKeever said. “This is going to be more children in our division, and our elementary schools can’t handle it.”

Atkins said there’s a need to act quickly.

“The longer we kick this can down the road, the more it’s going to cost us and the more the urgency is going to be to find capacity,” she said.

The division’s enrollment has been growing since fiscal year 2011.

For next school year, the division’s enrollment is projected to grow by 0.2 percent, according to Wednesday’s presentation. Growth in the number of students from other localities paying tuition is expected to be flat.

Board Chairman Juandiego Wade said everything is on the table.

“The capacity issues are real and concrete,” he said.

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Katherine Knott is a reporter for The Daily Progress. Contact her at (434) 978-7263, kknott@dailyprogress.com, or @knott_katherine on Twitter.

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