Albemarle County School Board members on Thursday expressed discontent with a potential $59 million bond referendum supported by the county’s Board of Supervisors.
In December, the School Board voted to adopt a consultant’s recommendation to pursue the phased construction of satellite centers dedicated to project-based learning and work experiences for high school students, while modernizing the county’s existing high schools. The total cost of the recommended high school projects currently is estimated at $91.8 million over five years.
The School Board and the Board of Supervisors have discussed funding the high school expansion projects through a bond referendum on the 2018 general election ballot.
Albemarle County voters passed a $35 million bond referendum in 2016 to finance a 16-classroom addition at Woodbrook Elementary School, new science labs at Western Albemarle High School, and security enhancements and classroom modernization at schools throughout the county. It was the county’s first bond referendum since 1974.
On Wednesday, the Board of Supervisors voted to support the potential issuance of $59 million in debt through a bond referendum in November, with $47 million dedicated to school projects.
However, $47 million from the potential bond referendum would cover just a fraction of the School Board’s $145.8 million Capital Improvement Program request for fiscal 2019-2023.
School Board member Dave Oberg said the Board of Supervisors’ $47 million cap on funding for school projects in a 2018 bond referendum was “tremendously disappointing.”
“Effectively, this is saying they are not giving the public the opportunity to fund our improvements,” Oberg said. “This is a strategic error that they should reconsider.”
The $47 million from the potential bond referendum could be used to pay for an $11.7 million addition and modernization project at Scottsville Elementary School scheduled for fiscal year 2019, and the construction of a $35.1 million high school student center in fiscal year 2020.
However, the bond referendum currently supported by the Board of Supervisors would likely delay the school division’s desired $46.9 million modernization of existing high schools to foster collaborative, student-centered learning experiences.
The School Board’s five-year CIP request also includes a $10.2 million addition and modernization at Crozet Elementary School, $4.8 million for a second phase of an addition to Red Hill Elementary School, and $27.3 million for additional learning space modernization projects throughout the county.
The School Board’s CIP request also budgets $9.8 million for a second high school center that could open in 2024, depending on the growth of the county’s high school enrollment.
School Board member Jonno Alcaro said he wasn’t ready to settle for $47 million in funding from the potential bond referendum and urged fellow board members to inform parents about projects that could go unfunded.
“We are not asking for extra or superfluous money,” Alcaro said. “We are asking for something that is focused like a laser.”
Albemarle County staff have estimated a $59 million bond referendum could require a 4.2 cent increase to the county’s real estate tax rate over five years.
The 2016 bond referendum gave the Board of Supervisors permission to increase the real estate tax rate by 1.3 cents to cover project costs and interest from the bonds. However, the rate hike was not implemented after sufficient revenue was collected through increases in the assessed value of county properties.
School Board member Katrina Callsen said many county residents were unaware that the real estate tax rate was not raised after the 2016 bond referendum.
“I can see how there are people who will go to the polls and think that we are asking for another tax increase,” Callsen said.
Three supervisors on Wednesday voted against a motion to support a $70 million bond referendum.
“I don’t want to put myself in the position of committing the community to a large tax increase at this time,” Supervisor Liz Palmer said at Wednesday’s meeting. “It’s not about what I am comfortable with. It’s about what people can handle in their budgeting.”
Supervisor Rick Randolph said county voters would balk at a bond referendum that approached the School Board’s five-year request of $145.8 million.
“The sticker shock to that and how voters would respond to it is beyond my political comprehension, despite the merit of the argument,” Randolph said.
Supervisor Norman Dill said he wanted to gauge the effectiveness of the high school center model before including two centers in the county’s Capital Improvement Program.
“It seems like we are committing ourselves to having this plan... when educational theory and practices could evolve dramatically over the next few years,” Dill said.
Albemarle will open a pilot high school center in the Seminole Park industrial facility in August. The Center for Creativity and Invention, or “Albemarle Tech”, will host 20 to 40 high school seniors during the 2018-2019 school year and eventually could enroll 150 students.
Supervisors Ann Mallek, Diantha McKeel and Ned Gallaway said they would support a bond referendum of $70 million or more.
McKeel said she was convinced of the school division’s need to modernize learning spaces in each of its high schools in order to implement programmatic changes throughout the county.
“Voters need the opportunity to support projects themselves," McKeel said. “We have limited ourselves once again."
On May 24, the School Board is scheduled to decide whether to request a bond referendum by county voters in November.
The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to approve the CIP and potential bond referendum projects on June 6.