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The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors has declined the county School Board’s request to put $96 million for school improvement projects on a bond referendum this November.
The supervisors maintained their support for the potential issuance of $59 million in debt through a bond referendum on Election Day, with $47 million dedicated to projects identified by the School Board and $12 million to other local government projects.
On May 9, supervisors said the $47 million for school projects could potentially be used over the next two fiscal years to pay for an $11.7 million addition and modernization project at Scottsville Elementary School, and the construction of a 600-student high school center for $35.1 million.
However, it is unclear if the School Board will continue to pursue a bond referendum given these constraints.
“The [supervisors’] action was extremely disappointing and, I believe, jeopardizes the high school redesign project altogether as well as any upgrades to Scottsville [Elementary],” School Board Chairwoman Kate Acuff said in an email.
The School Board voted in December to increase Albemarle’s high school capacity over time with satellite centers dedicated to project-based learning and work experiences for students.
“We are not talking about just a new high school; we are talking about a new curriculum and educational model,” said Supervisor Diantha McKeel. “It’s less money [than the cost of a traditional high school] but it’s harder to wrap your head around, because we are not used to thinking about education and [school] projects in this way.”
Along with the new centers, a facilities planning study by consultants also recommended modernizing the county’s existing high schools to make them more conducive to student-led, collaborative coursework. The total cost of the recommended high school projects currently is estimated at $91.8 million over five years.
On May 24 the School Board voted, 4-3, to request a $96 million bond referendum that could finance more projects in its $145.8 million Capital Improvement Program request for fiscal 2019-2023.
The $96 million referendum desired by the School Board could include funding for a $34.2 million renovation of instructional spaces at Albemarle High School and Western Albemarle High School and $12.5 million for similar modernization projects at other schools, along with the new high school center and the Scottsville Elementary renovation.
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.
On Wednesday, county staff told the Board of Supervisors that a $96 million bond referendum would require a 7.7-cent increase to the real estate tax.
The School Board’s requested bond referendum could also make Albemarle’s debt service slightly exceed 8 percent of its annual revenue— a recommended guideline for maintaining the county’s AAA credit rating.
“I am not going to do anything to compromise our AAA rating, and I’m not going to do anything that jeopardizes our ability to borrow in an emergency,” said Supervisor Rick Randolph.
Supervisor Liz Palmer said a bond referendum exceeding $59 million would place a heavy financial burden on many county residents. She also noted that Albemarle County Public Schools will soon have a change in leadership, with Deputy Superintendent Matt Haas set to replace Pam Moran as Superintendent on July 1.
“I know [Haas] certainly is in lockstep and supports what we are doing, but it might be prudent for us to think through this and just appropriate the amount of money that we know the school is going to need for next year,” Palmer said. “We have to rethink the idea of going out for bond referendum this year.”
Board of Supervisors chairwoman Ann H. Mallek said she was uncertain if revenues would grow enough for the county to easily pay back $96 million and interest on the bonds.
“Assuming— rather blindly— that the economy is going to gallop along is going to give me nightmares,” Mallek said.
Supervisor Norman Dill said he would prefer to fund school improvement projects through the county’s Capital Improvement Program without holding a bond referendum.
“To me, the problem with a referendum is that it distorts priorities and politicizes them; you have to find right balance of school and not-school projects to appeal to a larger number of people,” Dill said.
McKeel and Supervisor Ned Gallaway— both former members of the county School Board— both voiced support for a bond referendum that would cover most of the recommended expansion and modernization projects in the 2017 high school facilities planning study.
“[The school division] is trying to change the high school experience for our students and just plucking certain projects out is not going to help them,” McKeel said.
“If you are going to go for bond referendum for anything other than the full system, I wonder what the sales pitch to the voter is,” said Gallaway.
Albemarle schools spokesman Phil Giaramita said the School Board is expected to discuss the potential bond referendum at its regular meeting on June 14.