As Albemarle County Public Schools continues with a redistricting plan that would adjust high school feeder patterns, some parents have begun calling for the division to build a new high school in northern Albemarle.
However, neither Albemarle’s current nor projected enrollment figures warrant such a move, officials say.
“Right now, we don’t have the numbers that justify a new school and we don’t even project numbers that will justify a new school,” said Dean Tistadt, chief operating officer for the division. “For those reasons, we don’t think that investment, even if we were flush with cash in Albemarle County, is the right thing to do at this point in time.”
Tistadt estimates the cost to construct a new northern high school at about $60 million, with between $2 million and $3 million per year for additional operating costs.
“Even though it can be painful getting there – because you have overcrowded schools in the intervening time period – I really believe that you have to be absolutely certain you’ve got a need before you make that kind of investment,” Tistadt said.
During the 2014-15 school year, Albemarle High School was 111 students over capacity. At the same time, Monticello and Western Albemarle High schools had extra space, with 144 and 46 open seats, respectively.
Projecting high school enrollment out five years, the division’s entire high school population is only expected to be 135 students over capacity.
“So the question is, would you build a 1,200-seat facility for [135 seats]?” asked Rosalyn Schmitt, the division’s assistant director of facilities planning. “The answer is no, so how would you expand your existing facilities to accommodate that need?”
To avoid being redistricted, parents have called for moving the Math, Engineering and Sciences Academy from AHS to Monticello High and building an addition at AHS.
Earlier this month, division officials responded to the suggestion of relocating MESA by saying the move was outside of the Redistricting Advisory Committee’s purview, as well as by pointing to parity issues that would arise.
Tistadt agreed, and said adding on to AHS – which the School Board has directed staff not to do – would cause other problems.
“It’s the smallest campus, and adding there would just exacerbate the problems they already have with parking and traffic, practice fields and the width of hallways, any number of things,” Tistadt said.
“The starting point is the numbers,” Tistadt said. “They may in the 10-year window rise to the level of building an addition on an existing school.”
Endorsed by the School Board in April, the Redistricting Advisory Committee has been charged with developing scenarios to address overcrowding at Albemarle High and Greer Elementary schools.
With an enrollment of 1,930 last year, Albemarle High was more than 800 students larger than both Monticello and Western Albemarle.
Greer Elementary served 597 students last year, and is projected to be 99 students over capacity in five years.
In addition to counting seats, the division also is analyzing space by available classrooms.
Currently, Albemarle’s high schools have a total of four extra classrooms. In five years, schools officials expect to be eight classrooms short, and in 10 years, 25 classrooms short.
The division’s elementary schools, by classroom, will be at capacity next year. Five years out, that figure jumps to 18 classrooms short, and in 10 years, the division is expected to be short 25 elementary classrooms.
“If you go to Greer Elementary School and walk the halls, what you will see is a lot of desks and chairs out in the hallways and in nooks and crannies, and that’s where they’re doing their pullout intervention,” Tistadt said.
“That isn’t where it should be happening,” he added. “It should be happening in smaller classrooms.”
A 300-seat addition to Woodbrook Elementary School was cut from the latest capital budget. As a result, and given that constructing a new courthouse facility is using much of Albemarle County’s capital resources, the school division is in the early stages of discussing a possible bond referendum to fund school infrastructure.
“The possibility of a referendum is still just a part of the conversation about the overall funding challenges of the capital program,” Schmitt said, noting that a referendum wouldn’t be on the ballot until 2016.
In the near-term, however, Tistadt said he believes a redistricting will work.
“We think we’re buying a solution that’s at least a five-year solution and may last longer than that, depending on where the numbers go,” he said. “If the numbers go the other way, then maybe we have to accelerate a capacity enhancement project like an addition.”
“It’s just unfortunate that the growth is occurring in the area that is feeding into the largest school,” Tistadt said. “That’s the conundrum.”