Updated Jan. 11, 2019, 1:56 p.m.
In 2019, our local school boards and the voting public will make decisions with wide-ranging implications for Charlottesville and Albemarle County.
Here are some of the big stories in education policy that Charlottesville Tomorrow will be following this year.
Anti-racism in Albemarle
Anti-racist groups have been a political force in Charlottesville for years, even more so since the white supremacist events of 2017. But it took longer for this brand of activism to arrive in Albemarle.
That moment came in 2018, when the Hate-Free Schools Coalition of Albemarle County demanded the removal of Lee-Jackson Day from the school calendar. While the school division quickly amended its calendar, it resisted calls from parents, students and community members to include a ban on Confederate symbols in its student dress code.
Tensions between Hate-Free Schools and county officials exploded last August when police broke up a protest and arrested several people at the County Office Building on McIntire Road. Since then, Hate-Free Schools has accused the county School Board of continuing to evade activists by starting its public comment period after 9 p.m. or threatening to do away with it altogether.
Albemarle County Public Schools recently announced that it will hold the public comment period prior to the business portion of its meeting on Thursday.
This year, the county School Board is expected to adopt a comprehensive anti-racism policy that was drafted by a group of eight high school students (with guidance from a consultant). The latest draft of the policy directs numerous actions aimed at reducing racial disparities in student discipline, academic tracking and related areas, but it doesn’t include specific guidance for the Confederate symbols issue.
Even if Albemarle follows Charlottesville’s lead and enacts the ban, a long year of mistrust will make it difficult for the school division to reconcile its differences with the activist coalition. In 2019, Hate-Free Schools plans to take its grassroots organizing to the next logical step by recruiting prospective candidates for School Board elections.
Eight seats up for grabs
Four seats on the Albemarle County School Board will be up for election in November. Jonno Alcaro will run for re-election to the board’s at-large seat. Stephen Koleszar has announced that he will not run to represent the Scottsville District for a seventh term. Jason Buyaki and David Oberg have not yet announced their plans for the races in their districts.
The Charlottesville School Board also has four available at-large seats in 2019.
James Bryant, the newest member of the Charlottesville School Board, is running for a full term. He was unopposed in a 2018 special election that was held after he was appointed to fill a vacancy.
The School Board seat that recently was left vacant by Amy Laufer is up for election in November. Jennifer McKeever and Sherry Kraft have not shared their plans for the election.
No newcomers have formally announced their candidacy for either School Board thus far. The deadline for candidates to file their campaign paperwork is June 11.
Naming the problem
Like many school divisions across the country, Albemarle County Public Schools is reevaluating the legacies of the historical figures that are honored in the names of its buildings.
Last fall, the county School Board directed Superintendent Matt Haas to review the division’s current policy on the naming of school buildings and facilities. The school division later issued a request for information “to solicit input, ideas, and recommendations from universities, consultants and individuals to inform our process of researching the namesakes of fourteen Albemarle County schools”
Cale Elementary, named after the longest-serving superintendent in Albemarle’s history, was the first school name to come under scrutiny in 2018. According to a 1956 article in Commentary magazine, the late Paul H. Cale doubted the feasibility of racial integration in Albemarle’s schools because white parents “would not permit their children to receive instruction from inferior Negro teachers.”
It’s safe to assume that five African-American school namesakes — John E. Baker, James R. Butler, Jackson P. Burley, Mary Carr Greer and Virginia L. Murray — will remain. The School Board may face more difficult decisions about Meriwether Lewis Elementary and Jack Jouett Middle schools, as both are named for prominent historical figures who owned slaves.
Budgeting for equity
Charlottesville educators and residents were well aware of the achievement gap between the city’s white and black students before the New York Times and ProPublica investigated the issue last fall. But the scathing article could provide new motivation to adopt bold strategies to address this problem.
Charlottesville City Schools hosted two community forums on equity in the weeks after the article was published. While participants voiced their opinions on many issues, some that stood out as clear priorities included hiring and supporting teachers of color; re-examining Quest, the division’s gifted program; and expanding the division’s preschool offerings.
Those ideas, and others, could be areas of focus for a new equity policy currently being drafted by the Charlottesville School Board. The board will also examine these topics while creating its budget for the 2019-2020 school year. Superintendent Rosa Atkins is slated to present her proposed budget on Feb. 7, after three School Board work sessions are held in January.
The current School Board is confident in Atkins’ ability to bring about change. In November, it voted unanimously to renew her contract with the school division through the 2022-23 academic year.
After years of waiting, the Charlottesville School Board appears ready to move forward with plans to reconfigure its middle grades and move the city’s preschool classrooms into a single building.
The School Board intends to request $58 million from the city in order to convert the Walker Upper Elementary School building to a centralized preschool facility, move fifth grade students back to the city’s elementary schools and expand Buford Middle School to include students in sixth through eighth grade. The division hasn’t yet planned a specific timeline for these projects.
If all preschoolers are moved to the Walker campus, Charlottesville’s elementary schools would have room for fifth-graders with the addition of a few modular classrooms. However, the division may need to expand several school buildings or construct a new elementary school as a long-term capacity solution.
Albemarle’s bond holdup
Albemarle County Public Schools will try again this year to secure funding for a comprehensive redesign of the county’s high school system.
In 2017 the county School Board endorsed a consultant’s recommendation to build several high school centers dedicated to experiential learning and modernize the county’s existing high schools. The total cost of the School Board’s desired high school projects is estimated at $91.8 million over five years.
The School Board gave up its pursuit of a bond referendum in 2018 after the supervisors backed down from the $96 million referendum it requested.
Supervisors worried about the potential “sticker shock” of a large bond referendum for county voters and questioned the unorthodox, center-based model for Albemarle’s high school system. The division is piloting the model this year at Albemarle Tech, a smaller center housed in 42,000 square feet of leased space in Seminole Place.
The School Board’s capital budget for this year was reduced to only $5.4 million for design work and land acquisition for a new 600-student high school center; an addition to Scottsville Elementary School; and improvements to the Albemarle and Western Albemarle high school buildings.
The School Board has discussed the acquisition of real property in closed sessions at recent meetings, suggesting that an announcement of the high school center’s location could be imminent.
Negotiations for a November bond referendum could begin after the supervisors approve the county’s operating budget in the spring. However, the county might also postpone the referendum until 2020, when a presidential election should bring far more voters to the polls.
Albemarle County is poised to enter a new public-private partnership that will expand access to after-school programming.
Last summer, Albemarle received an unsolicited offer from the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Virginia to build a 40,000-square-foot clubhouse near Jack Jouett Middle School at no cost to the division.
Some School Board members were concerned that the clubhouse would have to be built on the current site of the driver education course for Albemarle High School. They also worried that agreeing to the Boys & Girls Clubs’ proposal without accepting competing offers could violate the county’s procurement policies.
The school division issued a request for proposals from after-school providers, which are currently being evaluated through a competitive sealed bidding process. While the local Boys & Girls Clubs has been presented with some unexpected hurdles, the organization’s zero-cost offer will be hard to top.