Long Range Planning Advisory Committee members addressing the Albemarle School Board

In the coming years, the school buildings Albemarle County’s children step into might look a little different than what students are used to now.

That is if funding for a 10-year, nearly $70 million learning spaces modernization project can be secured. Last week County Executive Tom Foley recommended cutting the project somewhat to help balance next year’s budget.

“This is the central-most essential thing we can do, because it’s not just about using the latest technology to impart knowledge on our students, it’s also an effort to create parity across all schools,” School Board member Eric Strucko said of the effort that would touch all of the division’s schools.

School Board member Pam Moynihan agreed, calling the project “very important.”

“It’s not just upgrading libraries. It goes further, to upgrading classrooms and spaces where kids can work collaboratively,” Moynihan said.

Introduced in August, learning spaces modernization is aimed at equipping Albemarle’s school buildings — which schools officials argue are well-maintained but often out-of-date — with resources that reflect the teaching and learning the division says will best serve students in the 21st century.

For example, the project calls for updating furniture such as desks and chairs and rethinking how natural light is incorporated into classrooms, as well as plans to upgrade the electrical capacity in classrooms and to transform unused space into collaborative space for students to work.

“I would like to see us someday
offer a high school diploma through
virtual learning,” Moynihan said.

But School Board member Steve Koleszar said that while he supports the project, right now the board is “very resource constrained.”

“Maybe we can’t fund it nearly as much as we should, but we still … need a focus so the most critical needs get addressed first,” Koleszar said. “And then, when and if we have more funding available, we can go into the areas that are needed improvements but maybe not as desperately needed.”

In addition to the built environment, the virtual world also is changing how instruction can be delivered in the education landscape. As a result, some School Board members told the division’s Long Range Planning Advisory Committee to think about online learning as it studies the school division.

“[Virtual learning has] to have a presence in high school to prepare students for many of the colleges that they will be walking into,” Strucko said.

Moynihan took the idea one step further.

“I would like to see us someday offer a high school diploma through virtual learning,” Moynihan said. “Any way that we could make different kinds of educational opportunities available, we should look at that.”

The advisory committee also examines capacity levels throughout the division, and in June the body recommended that the schools conduct a comprehensive redistricting study. That idea was tabled by the board, but Thursday’s conversation saw the advisory committee urge the board to reconsider.

“Though you recommended a comprehensive redistricting study,” Koleszar said, “I don’t know if you have very effectively made a great case for it.”

“Obviously, Albemarle High School is over capacity and enrollment is going up rapidly and is becoming a real problem,” Koleszar said. “But other than the need to redistrict Albemarle, why do we need a comprehensive study?”

Koleszar said that one reason the board has backed off the idea of the global study is because while a school might be over capacity on paper, that doesn’t mean it’s impacting instruction.

Ned Gallaway, chairman of the School Board, suggested conducting a study of the division’s capacity issues, but approaching it holistically, rather than with the intent to redistrict certain schools.

Moynihan agreed, noting that the issue of changing which school a child attends can be an emotional one for families.

“The idea is not to rile up people in the community and make them think that we’re going to go out and start moving kids around,” Moynihan said. “But it is something that we really need to look at holistically.”

Strucko said there are some areas of the county where redistricting isn’t needed.

“Red Hill. Why would you tinker with a district that is highly stable with a student enrollment that fits the capacity?” Strucko asked. “To me, that’s what you shoot for.”

“If you don’t call it a redistricting committee, you won’t get the outcry from the community,” said Jon Stokes, a former School Board member and a current member of the Long Range Planning Advisory Committee. “They hear ‘comprehensive redistricting’ and everyone thinks that their child is going to move. But if you just assign this responsibility to us … just to look at it theoretically, I think that’s the way to go.”

The advisory committee will work throughout the year and present its findings to the board in June. Gallaway said that prior to receiving that report, the board plans to hold a conversation about capacity issues at Albemarle High School.