As students at Greer Elementary attend programs convened in hallways and Albemarle High School prepares to install an eight-classroom mobile unit to alleviate overcrowding, county and schools officials are scrambling to find money for permanent fixes.
Albemarle supervisors voted recently to borrow $1 million to begin design work of an addition to Woodbrook Elementary, which schools officials hope will quell some of the concern about Greer.
To take pressure off Greer, which was expanded in 2008, the division will bus students in the Head Start preschool program to Broadus Wood Elementary.
County Executive Tom Foley’s proposed five-year capital improvement program for the school division totals $56 million, most of which is earmarked for maintenance. Just over $1 million is set aside to renovate classrooms at Red Hill Elementary.
The total cost for the Red Hill project is $5.1 million, but more than $4 million of the project remains unfunded, county documents show.
The plan does not include any new construction projects.
Over the next 10 years, Foley’s budget shows, more than $149 million in school projects will go unfunded.
The list includes a $16 million addition to Albemarle High, more than $37 million to modernize classrooms, a $4 million addition to Western Albemarle High School and a $2 million addition to Stony Point Elementary.
Supervisor Brad Sheffield said the Woodbrook addition, a $14 million line item on the unfunded list, would not go far enough to solve the division’s woes. The project would add 300 seats to the school, bringing its capacity to 600 students.
“If we are having these capacity issues, the long-term solution needs to be adding a school,” he said. “I don’t think adding [onto an existing school] is a long-term solution.”
There are no new school projects proposed on the 10-year CIP.
“We have a 10-year CIP in our budget book, and nowhere in our 10-year CIP does it mention a new school,” Sheffield said. “I just don’t see us meeting the demand.”
At a February budget work session, Albemarle School Board member Jason Buyaki suggested increasing average class size by one student. The idea was passed over.
“It is important not to overbuild, because then you are wasting taxpayer money,” he said. “I think we are OK now, and there are some other solutions. … The other [board members] didn’t find my solution appealing, which was to add to class size.”
The school division might get some relief if the Board of Supervisors elects to send some unfunded CIP projects to a bond referendum. The referendum would be on ballots in November.
The supervisors will not decide on the referendum, nor which projects would be included, before a budget is approved in April. Sheffield said he favors including school projects if the referendum goes forward.
“If we are going to do a bond referendum, these are the things that the community wants to be voting on,” he said.
It is important for the county to act soon, Sheffield said, to avoid tough choices in the future. Needed improvements to the county’s fire and rescue system already have made decisions more difficult, he said.
“Good long-term planning makes these decisions easier, and, unfortunately, that is not how it unfolded,” he said. “We are on that slippery slope to where it could easily be a conversation of schools versus fire and rescue, and we should do everything we can to not have to rank anything.”
Supervisor Diantha McKeel, who spent 16 years on the county School Board, said the decision is not either-or.
“We are going to need a new elementary school up [U.S.] 29 north … there is no doubt about that,” she said. “But I think if you look at it right now, we are going to need both.”
Compounding the issue, McKeel said, is the amount of available land at existing school sites.
“Part of the issue is Greer, for example, doesn’t even have the land,” she said. “We couldn’t put trailers out there. We don’t have the land mass.”
If the county does decide to move ahead with the addition to Woodbrook, officials said at a March 8 budget work session, it would mean borrowing more than $12 million in fiscal year 2018. The resulting debt service could necessitate a 2.6- or 2.8-cent real estate tax rate hike in fiscal year 2019.
Adding a new school presents a physical, as well as financial, challenge, Albemarle schools COO Dean Tistadt said at the work session.
“We don’t currently have a site that works for us,” Tistadt said. “As we look at certainty of solutions … what we concluded is that we need to stay with the Woodbrook addition.”
A 400-student, two-story elementary school likely would cost between $14 million and $16 million, Tistadt said.
By building an addition first, Buyaki said, the division would avoid the delay that comes with an entirely new building.
“The addition helps in the short term, and since we don’t have to start from scratch, you are reducing your wait time by three or four years” he said. “The problem is having a site ready, and we are not there yet.”
Officials laid blame for the continuation of overcrowding at the feet of sluggish spending in the aftermath of the Great Recession.
“The challenge is that the CIP for the last six to seven years at least has really not addressed any of the challenges the school system faces in the way of capacity needs, our enrollment growth, most specifically in the urban ring,” McKeel said.
Buyaki agreed that CIP spending was slow in the recession years, but does not think the situation is dire.
“I don’t think we are in a position of catch-up,” he said. “We are maximizing our space in a number of schools and we have to add some additional seats to accommodate the growth, but I don’t think we are too far behind.”