When our government class began our Citizen Action Project, our entire group was unaware of the issue of overcrowding in Albemarle County Public Schools.
On Feb. 29, we sat in on an Albemarle County School Board meeting in hopes of finding a relevant issue to focus on for our public policy project. Attending Monticello High School, a high school that is comfortably under capacity, we were shocked to hear the statistics of overcrowding in the schools around us.
Currently, 33 percent of ACPS students attend overcrowded schools and in five years that number is estimated to rise to 50 percent. As of right now, there is no funding in the Capital Improvement Plan to add capacity to current or new county schools.
After hearing these facts, it became clear to us that overcrowding was the most important and relevant school issue in our county that we could focus on for our project.
As we moved forward and interviewed School Board members as well as local public school administrators and employees, we learned that we were only a small portion of citizens in the county that were aware of overcrowding. Though it has been an issue for many years and was even included in the Capital Investment Plan’s 10 year goal.
Now that our group has an understanding of the issue of overcrowding, our hope is to educate county citizens on the issue and to advocate for the solution that we found to be best for this situation, which is to build a new public high school in Northern Albemarle County.
Building a new high school is one of many possible solutions to county overcrowding. The School Board has helped create learning spaces in overcrowded schools by transforming teacher work rooms into classrooms and closets into teacher workrooms. They have looked into redistricting proposals, double-bussing pre-K students from their overcrowded schools to pre-K classrooms at other schools, and are currently considering building additions to Albemarle High School and Woodbrook Elementary.
And what we have learned is that there is truly no “ideal solution” to overcrowding, as all of these solutions have major costs. Although based on the information we have gathered, we argue that the new school is the most satisfying long-term solution available and would alleviate overcrowding for years to come.
Our reasoning for this has been drawn from consideration of past experiences and present predictions with overcrowding solutions. We are inclined not to support the current push for school additions because of their superficial and short-term nature.
For example, in 2012, Greer Elementary School built a one story addition to add more available seats to their school. At the school board meeting in February, this addition was called a “mistake,” as the design does not allowing for further additions to the school (which is now 96 students over its 578 student capacity). When asked what steps would be taken to prevent a “mistake” like this happening again, School Board members said they just couldn’t prevent the growth. So maybe it’s time now to expect the growth that will come and shift our efforts to a long-term solution.
The total ACPS student enrollment has been growing steadily for several years. In the 2012-2013 school year, there were 12,798 students in Albemarle County. This number is currently 13,471 and is projected to rise to 13,819 in four years.
With this continued growth, it is clear that like Greer, additions will only solve overcrowding issues for a few years before they are once again overcapacity. A more permanent solution could be provided through building a new school.
Despite the rising populations, the last public school to be built in the county was Baker Butler Elementary in 2002. Land has recently been offered to the county for the development of a new high school at the intersection of US 29 and Polo Grounds Road is in the center of county growth, “the urban ring.” Most overcrowding is centered in schools in this area such as Albemarle, Greer and Agnor Hurt. A new high school in this location would be ideal for accommodating continued county population growth for years to come.
A new high school would be able to provide a lasting solution through many more student seats and would accommodate future county growth.
Proposals for the Albemarle and Woodbrook additions seem to be filled with construction complications as well. The proposed 8-classroom modular unit at Albemarle High School would not be connected to the main building and would be difficult to keep both accessible and secure. The 16-classroom addition to Woodbrook Elementary has caused much resistance in the Woodbrook neighborhood as residents are concerned that it will decrease their property values, increase traffic, and cause safety issues by removing sidewalks and interfering with emergency vehicle access.
Another consideration is the accumulating cost of these additions. Though building a new high school is by no means inexpensive (estimates of construction are about $60 million), we believe that it is a much wiser investment than the many smaller costs of additions.
The proposed Woodbrook addition is estimated to cost $15.2 million and the Albemarle High School addition is estimated at $20 million. Combined, these costs are over half the cost of building a new high school, which would be less than $60 million because of the land proffer, but does not include amenities such as parking, sports fields, etc.
We believe that the county should make the decision to invest in the higher price of a new school growth now rather than pay for a number of small additions in future years. A new high school would be able to provide a lasting solution through many more student seats and would accommodate future county growth. On the other hand, the few seats that additions could provide would fill quickly and the county would once again face the overcrowding issue.
It has been proposed by the School Board that there should be a bond referendum that will propose a question to the public on the ballot during the November election, which we have not had since the construction of Western Albemarle High School which opened in 1977.
According to Dean Tistadt, the school division’s chief operating officer, this bond referendum assumes that if “the County sold general obligation bonds to fund a new high school at a cost of $60 million, the cost to taxpayers would be the equivalent of about 2.5 cents on the real estate tax rate or about $4.2 million per year in debt service.”
This prompts the question of whether or not we want to place a short-term or long-term fix on the ballot, but do citizens really want to pay more money in taxes for a short-term solution that will not fully alleviate overcrowding? If so, we may have wait another 30 plus years for a bond referendum to be recommended again.
On Wednesday, May 4, at 2 p.m. in the Lane Auditorium of the County Office Building, the Board of Supervisors will be meeting to discuss this bond referendum and citizens are encouraged to go and share their opinion.
Our CAP group believes that the funding from this bond referendum would be used much more effectively if it could go toward building a new school. If citizens do not advocate for a new school now, it is clear that it will be difficult to attain funding for it through another bond referendum in the future.
There is no better time to speak up for a lasting solution to the overwhelming and ongoing issue of overcrowding in our county public schools. We encourage Albemarle County citizens to voice their support of a new high school by attending this meeting or by sending an email to the Albemarle Board of Supervisors at firstname.lastname@example.org.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Jenna Pierides, Gena Lewis, Jessica Shaver, Michaela Rasnake, Jude Despian and Dalton Crenshaw are Seniors at Monticello High School