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Friday, March 10, 2023

It’s official, Charlottesville will be the sole owner of the Charlottesville Albemarle Technical Education Center, known locally as CATEC. City Schools now has free-reign over a school that is experiencing a surge in enrollment from students across Central Virginia.

Charlottesville officials say they’re excited by the opportunity, though they haven’t figured out how they’re going to pay for it yet — or what they’ll do with the school once they have it. The money will have to come from Charlottesville City Council, which provides the bulk of City Schools’ funding. On top of the $5.5 million it will cost to buy out City Schools’ longtime partner, Albemarle County Public Schools, the division will also be responsible for CATEC’s full operating costs going forward. That’s another $2 million a year if they leave things exactly as they are.

Teenagers peer under the raised hood of a car in a parking lot near a brick building.
Credit: Andrew Shurtleff, The Daily Progress

Now that City Schools is the sole owner of the local technical high school, officials must figure out how to pay the $5.5 million price tag

There’s a lot of backstory here. CATEC has operated as a regional technical school for 50 years. It was founded in 1973 by the city and county school systems together, and has been jointly run — and funded — by the two ever since. Though, with a much larger district, Albemarle students have always vastly outnumbered Charlottesville students in terms of enrollment. And because of that, Albemarle foots much more of the bill. Last year, for example, the county paid $2 million and the city covered $700,000.

With so many of its students attending CATEC, Albemarle officials last year made a bid to purchase the technical school from Charlottesville. They had plans to make major renovations, expand the campus and add more programs.

Albemarle has been talking about doing this since 2018, when then-deputy Superintendent Matt Haas was about to become superintendent. At the time, the county school system was concerned that the technical school wasn’t meeting its students’ needs, and they wanted more authority to make changes.

“The CATEC board has to change,” Haas said in 2018. “Having joint governance is in many ways preempting change at CATEC. Every time a decision has to be made, [Albemarle and Charlottesville representatives] both go back to their entities and ask, ‘Can we do it?’ If either one says no, then it’s not happening.”

A sign reads "CATEC Charlottesville Albemarle Technical Education Center" with a street light behind it.

Albemarle school officials desire more control of CATEC

In the five years since, CATEC modernized some of its programs, after which there was a massive increase in enrollment. Between 2020 and 2022 — during the pandemic — enrollment jumped 40 percent, according to a report by NBC29.

Interest in technical schools surged across the country during those two years. While the pandemic raged, national enrollment in traditional four-year universities dropped, while enrollment in technical education that prepares students for specific jobs rose. You can read more about that phenomenon in this Marketplace article here, or in this Washington Post article here.

The increased enrollment made Albemarle officials even more interested in taking sole charge of the technical school. The trouble was, county officials were lukewarm about guaranteeing continued access to Charlottesville students once they took ownership, City School leaders have said. So when Albemarle made the offer last year, Charlottesville said no.

Under their 50-year-old joint operating agreement, once Albemarle made the offer to buy CATEC, the contract between the two school systems was terminated. It was then up to City Schools to decide whether to sell the school or buy it.

“The decision came pretty quickly so we couldn’t iron out all the details, but if you get an opportunity you’ve got to take advantage of it,” said Charlottesville Vice Mayor Juandiego Wade. 

City Schools has said they intend to keep CATEC as a regional school open to Albemarle County students — though officials have no set plans to modernize the facilities. The city is looking to create partnerships with Piedmont Valley Community College and the University of Virginia to expand programs, said Mayor Lloyd Snook.

We’ll keep an eye on what’s happening at CATEC as City Schools takes over. In the meantime, we’d love to know about your experiences at the school. Contact us here, or hit reply to this email.

Thanks for reading!

Jessie Higgins, managing editor

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I'm Charlottesville Tomorrow's managing editor and health and safety reporter. If there’s something you think we should be investigating, please email me at jhiggins@cvilletomorrow.org! And you can follow all the work we do by subscribing to our free newsletter! Hablo español, y quiero mantener a la comunidad hispanohablante informada. Si tienes preguntas o información que debo saber, por favor, envíame un correo electrónico a jhiggins@cvilletomorrow.org.