After months of uncertainty, the Charlottesville School Board appears united behind plans to reconfigure middle school grades and build a centralized preschool facility. “We need to move,” said School Board member Leah Puryear. “We have been talking about this long enough.” Charlottesville City Schools contracted with VMDO Architects in 2017 to study school capacity and enrollment trends and to give recommendations for improvements and modernization projects for each school. After hosting several community meetings last winter to get input on school expansion scenarios, the school division opted to postpone action until it received new enrollment data for the 2018-2019 academic year. At a budget work session on Wednesday, the School Board was united in support of expanding Buford Middle School to include students in sixth through eighth grade, moving fifth grade back to the city’s elementary schools and centralizing the division’s pre-K program at the current Walker Upper Elementary School campus. The total cost of the projects is estimated at $58 million. “We’re in a situation where we don’t have any major problems with our buildings, but we can’t wait much longer,” Puryear said. This year, 656 students are enrolled at Walker and 536 are enrolled at Buford. VMDO calculated Walker’s maximum capacity as 675 students and Buford’s as 627.
Walker and Buford both opened in 1966 as middle schools. In 1987, the School Board sought to eliminate racial imbalances between the schools by sending all fifth- and sixth-graders to Walker and all seventh- and eighth-graders to Buford. In 2010, the School Board voted to return fifth grade to elementary schools and combine grades six through eight at Walker or Buford. Those plans never materialized, however. “Ten years ago, the solution seemed more narrow; we were only talking about what was more developmentally appropriate for our students,” Superintendent Rosa Atkins said. “Now we are factoring in capacity and equity.” Atkins said site plans are being developed for Charlottesville’s elementary schools that would allow for additional modular classrooms to accommodate fifth-graders. “There are some space issues that we will have to reconcile,” Atkins said. The city’s Pre-K program currently occupies 17 classrooms across the six elementary schools. If elementary enrollment continues to grow, Charlottesville may need to build additions at several schools or construct a new elementary school. The School Board on Thursday did not voice a preference for either option. Wade said members of the School Board would notify the City Council of their intent to request the $58 million for new facilities in Charlottesville’s Capital Improvement Program. The School Board’s next meeting is scheduled for Jan. 10.