Albemarle plans major school upgrades in capital budget

The Albemarle County School Board has endorsed a facilities budget that, if fully funded, would see about $104 million disbursed over the next five years.

The spending plan—which represents the school division’s projected infrastructure needs—will now be considered against local government needs to form the Capital Improvement Plan for the next budget cycle.

Revised each year, the CIP is shared jointly between the school division and County government, and serves as a planning document. It estimates costs in one year increments over a decade. The capital budget for just the 2015-16 school year totals about $13 million.

Topping the 11 item list is about $52 million for seven on-going projects such as general building maintenance, instructional technology and school bus replacements.

The School Board chose to rank new science labs at Western Albemarle High School as the top construction priority. The project, which totals $625,000, would serve the needs of students enrolled in the division’s new Environmental Sciences Academy.

To address growing enrollment in the division’s high schools, an approximately $2.2 million addition is slated at Western for fiscal years 2019-20, under the plan.  

As of Aug. 28, Albemarle’s enrollment is 13,281, which is 81 over projections, and 235 higher than the end of last year, Dean Tistadt, the division’s chief operating officer said.

“Some schools may come up or drop after this weekend, since it’s the first of the month and people might move, especially in the urban ring,” Albemarle superintendent Pam Moran said.

Built in 1973 and last renovated in 1982, Red Hill Elementary School is also expected to receive updates under the proposal. Thirteen classrooms and the library are projected to be modernized, for about $1.1 million.

“It may not be something we have to throw money at,
it may be something we have to get the word out to get
people to do,” Moynihan said.

Last year the Board of Supervisors approved about $9.5 million for the school CIP. The division’s top nine projects this year—which include Western Albemarle and Red Hill—come to almost $10.2 million.

“The School Board feels relatively confident that the first nine will be funded,” schools spokesman Phil Giaramita said.

The bulk of the proposed plan, however, comes in the form of a 10-year, nearly $70 million learning spaces modernization project that would update classrooms in all of the division’s 25 school buildings.

Schools staff has championed the initiative, arguing that while the division’s buildings have been well maintained, little has been done to address classroom design elements, such as furniture, access to natural light and the physical shape of classrooms.

These elements, Western Albemarle chemistry teacher Michelle Karpovich told the Board during a breakout session, benefit students.

“They enjoy having options in the way that they sit,” Karpovich said. “They feel that if they’re more comfortable they’re in a better mindset to engage in learning.”

“They’re responding well to a classroom that isn’t desks in rows,” Karpovich added.

Katina Dudley, director of the health and medical sciences academy at Monticello High School, agreed.

“Students enjoy learning spaces in the hallways,” Dudley said, noting that she’s seen student behavior improve when new furniture is added. “That means we have to increase supervision, but they do their work out there.”

At first skeptical of the project, School Board member Eric Strucko said the exercise was valuable, and that he walked into the conversation with the teachers Thursday “with one train of thought, and walked out with another.”

A conceptual image of a modernized reading and writing area slated for Agnor-Hurt Elementary School. 

But School Board member Pam Moynihan questioned whether updating classrooms is this something that all teachers agree with, or if it only has pockets of support.

“It may not be something we have to throw money at, it may be something we have to get the word out to get people to do,” Moynihan said.

Dudley said the interest is evidenced by the number of teachers throughout the County who have applied for money to update their rooms through Design 2015—the division’s innovation fund.

Michele Del Gallo Castner, principal of Agnor-Hurt Elementary School, agreed with Dudley and said the new teachers coming out of college are considering classroom designs to make their rooms unique and student-centered.

The School Board, however, is not blind to the project’s price tag. In the first year alone the project would elevate the CIP by $3 million. To that end, Strucko floated the idea of alternative financing.

“The school division intends to explore funding alternatives with the Board of Supervisors that would allow modernizations to go forward without any additional tax increases,” Giaramita said. “The way to do that would be through a bond.”

Tistadt said that the school division has had preliminary discussions with the County’s financial analysts, and that based on the CIP proposal, additional borrowing would not hurt Albemarle’s AAA Bond rating.

A 248-seat, $11.3 million addition at Woodbrook Elementary School rounded out the list.

“The thinking is to give the school division the capacity to redistrict students to Woodbrook,” Giaramita said.

In June, the Long Range Planning Advisory Committee recommended a comprehensive redistricting to address the division’s growing capacity issues. Staff will begin a redistricting study in the spring of 2015, to take effect in fall 2016.

Two years ago Albemarle redistricted Agnor-Hurt Elementary School. That move distributed about 100 Agnor-Hurt students among Broadus Wood, Woodbrook and Greer elementary schools.

The School Board’s adopted CIP will now head to the Technical Review Committee, before eventual adoption in spring.