The Albemarle County Public Schools Long Range Planning Advisory Committee presented its recommendations this week for a 16-room expansion of Woodbrook Elementary, as well as a division-wide evaluation of modernization needs on a room-by-room basis.
The committee, which traditionally has advised on the 10-year School Improvement Program, shortened its focus in response to the upcoming county bond referendum, formally requested by the Albemarle Board of Supervisors last week, as well as ongoing school capacity and facility modernization issues.
“We did not give you the list of priorities of the capital investment plan with cutoff lines to let you juggle priorities around,” said Jon Stokes, chairman of the committee. “That’s because of the bond referendum, obviously.”
The presentation at Thursday’s meeting of the Albemarle School Board was only a summary of the committee’s suggestions, and no action was taken. The committee will present to the board two more times in the coming months before specific projects are adopted.
Greer and Woodbrook elementaries currently have significant overcrowding, which is projected to worsen in the next few years. Both schools make use of trailers and have converted storage closets into auxiliary spaces for special education and other intervention services.
The committee considered but rejected a Greer addition due to limited usable land availability, and also advised against expanding Agnor-Hurt Elementary, as it is already a relatively large school. A Hollymead addition likely would result in significant redistricting, and building a new school would be the slowest and most costly option, with an opening date of 2020 and an estimated construction budget of $18 million.
“The problem with adding directly onto Greer is the configuration of the site and the structure of the school,” Stokes said. “At Woodbrook, there’s more ability to add on from a physical standpoint.”
The committee strongly recommended a 16-classroom addition at Woodbrook, currently the smallest school in the county’s urban ring. The construction would cost $42,361.11 per new seat. The addition would open for the 2018-19 school year.
Eight of the classrooms would meet near-term enrollment deficits for the area, three classrooms would be auxiliary spaces for intervention or other special programs, two classrooms would be built in anticipation of future growth and three classrooms would help meet the county’s public preschool deficit.
A 12-classroom addition also was evaluated, but would be less cost efficient, at $47,453.70 per new seat, officials said.
The Woodbrook expansion already has been discussed by the board, and it is one of the projects included in the bond referendum. Another is a program to modernize all schools.
While recently constructed additions have included modern features such as sufficient numbers of electrical outlets and state-of-the-art technology, existing classrooms and media centers have fallen out of date.
For example, classrooms at Albemarle High School have one-piece desks, which impede project-based learning, and more than 90 rooms across the division have no access to sunlight.
“The problem is that the capital program, as it currently stands, has no regular investment into current classrooms or media centers or other learning spaces,” said Stokes. “It’s difficult to teach in a 21st-century manner when you’re dealing with 20th-century facilities.”
The committee considered three options: updating school buildings as they receive additions; beginning a cycle of renewal for facilities based on age; or evaluating all school buildings and forming a modernization plan based on the severity of their needs.
Updating buildings during the construction of additions was deemed inequitable, as not all schools in the division will receive additions in the foreseeable future. Because the issue is so widespread, The committee determined that renovation based on building age would not be viable at this point, either.
The committee advocated for a room-by-room evaluation across the division to establish priorities for renovation, with the introduction of a renewal cycle based on facility age sometime in the future. They emphasized the need to include updated technology in modernization efforts.
“The cost estimate to modernize an entire school system was a huge number,” said Kate Acuff, chairwoman of the School Board. “We are making a modest step in this referendum to start addressing those issues in ways that would touch every school, but we have a ways to go to get on the renewal cycle.”
The committee addressed current and projected overcrowding at Albemarle High, as well as overcrowding projected at Western Albemarle High starting in 2019.
Because the Board of Supervisors recently approved a high school capacity planning study, the committee offered only a general list of suggestions on this issue. Options to be evaluated include building a new school, adding on to AHS or employing more modular external classrooms.
“The county has approved funding for high school planning but that funding is not specific to capacity only, it will include capacity but also how we teach,” Acuff said.
“With the pressure of overcrowding in Albemarle, it’s time for us to really develop a good process and make a good decision and lay out our vision, our plan for the next 20 years,” School Board member Steve Koleszar said.