Renovation of the track at Charlottesville High School hit a stumbling block this month, when the city removed $650,000 that would have kick-started design work on the project from the proposed five-year capital improvement program.
City School Board members said they did not find out the money was gone until after a joint meeting with the City Council, at which board members and councilors toured the high school’s current facilities, as well as proposed locations for the updated track.
Board members were supposed to have been told in February that the money was not available, said City Manager Maurice Jones, but were left in the dark inadvertently.
“The reductions should have been communicated to the schools in early February but were not. I, too, was caught off guard by this lack of notice,” Jones said. “We have identified why this occurred and have taken steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”
The money for the track, along with $750,000 for the design phase of a long-discussed middle-school grade reconfiguration, was in a draft budget Jones presented at a council retreat in February.
The money could be put back in the CIP at a budget work session this Thursday, city officials said.
At the retreat, the council decided not to pursue a real estate tax rate increase or to raise the city’s debt limit.
“Part of this was to find some savings in fiscal year ’17 to help balance the budget, which we did achieve,” Jones said. “Of course, there is opportunity to discuss these further and add them back into the capital budget if the city can afford to do so by either identifying additional revenue or savings in other areas.”
The capital program in Jones’ proposed budget lists roughly $1.5 million a year for the schools, which includes $475,000 a year to replace some heating and air-conditioning systems, budget documents show.
The rest of the money would pay for building maintenance, including paint and landscaping work, an elevator replacement at Clark Elementary and stormwater infrastructure improvements at CHS, documents show.
Amy Laufer, chairwoman of the School Board, said she was surprised to discover the money for the track improvements was not in the CIP, but hopes funding will be restored.
“[City officials] are going to be reviewing their budget over the next month, and a couple on City Council will be bringing those CIP issues up, so I think there is the potential for some restoration of funds,” she said.
The $650,000 would not pay for the entire track upgrade. The project is projected to cost between $800,000 and more than $2 million, depending on whether the track is moved and where it is finally built.
Councilor Wes Bellamy said he is open to considering reinstating money for the project.
“I have spoken specifically with the city manager about the track,” he said. “I think the play is going to be we, as council, look to provide the $650,000, and then the schools look to fundraise to find the rest of the money.”
School Board member Sherry Kraft said she was disappointed to see the funds get removed.
“I was really surprised to hear that the budget for this track upgrade was completely cut,” she said. “We had a process underway that included council, included CHS athletics staff and included the family of Curtis Elder, for whom the track is named. To have this process suddenly halted is pretty confusing and, frankly, embarrassing.”
Both Kraft and Laufer said the city and the division also need to sit down and hash out a long-term plan for the division’s buildings.
The division recently finished building state-of-the-art science, technology, engineering and math laboratories at both CHS and Buford Middle School. With those renovations completed, the division has other needs, Kraft and Laufer said.
“We are talking about 21st-century learning space, and we like how the county has dedicated some of their money towards renovations and not just maintenance,” Laufer said. “Two years ago we brought up the priorities for CIP and we tried to make learning spaces higher on the list of priorities, rather than just safety and maintenance and ADA compliance.”
City staff members are in the process of developing a prototype by which to design modern classrooms, Jones said.
“Public Works Facilities Development, who manages school capital projects for the schools, will soon be developing a prototypical classroom, and developing a cost estimate for those improvements,” he said. “Once developed, we’ll be able to budget for, and make improvements, to our schools.”
The pace of modernization will be “at an incremental pace, as our capital funding allows,” Jones said.
Though widespread classroom work is not part of the currently adopted CIP, the division this year is improving safety glass and the fire sprinkler system at Jackson-Via Elementary, theater rigging and scene shop work at CHS and playground upgrades at Clark Elementary.
Grade reconfiguration — creating one middle school for sixth- through eighth-graders — is a long way down the road, city officials said. Jones estimated the project would cost between $20 million and $60 million.
“Reconfiguration is a very expensive project which is larger than our annual capital budget … council would have to take a series of actions to accommodate such a large project, including timing, altering the city’s debt limit policy and committing to increase tax revenues,” he said.
Bellamy said he and his fellow councilors would need more information before committing to a tax increase.
“Before we look at something like increasing the real estate taxes, I think it is important for us to look at where out efficiencies and deficiencies are in terms of revenue, because right now we don’t know,” he said. “That is when we move forward and devise a plan.”
The City Council’s next budget work session is Thursday. The council is expected to approve the fiscal year 2017 budget at a meeting April 12.