Unification of the Charlottesville and Albemarle County school divisions would create a 35-school district covering more than 730 square miles serving almost 20,000 students.
One district would mean one central office, one school board and pooled state funding, but clarity about how the district would operate ends there.
Officials from both divisions say the idea surfaces every few years, but the last time combining the schools was given serious thought was in 1996, as Charlottesville toyed with reverting from a city to a town.
A 1996 study on the impact of reversion on schools, conducted by Richmond-based Educational Consulting Service LLC, showed a combined division could expect increased state funding, thanks to a more favorable local composite index, the state calculation of a division’s ability to contribute to its own budget.
Officials from Charlottesville and Albemarle said the quality of education is their primary concern.
“We are really blessed to have two great school divisions in the city and the county, but they are different,” said city School Board member Ned Michie. “We are serving our group, and we are closest to the ground on our needs within the city limits, the poverty we have, the refugee population we have, and we are closest to the ground to be responsive to that.”
Staff and elected officials from both divisions say unification presents an opportunity to save some money, but joining the two bodies would be complicated and potentially messy.
Trying to tackle consolidation of just the school divisions would breed complications that could be avoided if Charlottesville and Albemarle were to look at consolidating the city and county governments, said Ed Gillaspie, assistant superintendent for administration for the city school division.
“Regarding consolidation, combining the county and city altogether would probably end up making more sense, rather than just picking one department like the schools,” he said. “Considering the schools as the department being consolidated, you would have a few complications that would have to be worked through, governance being one.”
“Everything after that just kind of naturally merges,” he said.
County School Board chairwoman Kate Acuff said representation on a new governing body would be a serious challenge.
“At the political and policy-making level, there are two boards for each governmental entity, so [the question is] how to either consolidate or otherwise share power with the two school boards,” she said. “Having some sort of proportional representation could mean the county would win all votes.”
For me, there would really have to be a clear demonstration of how a merger between the two divisions would benefit the educational interests of our students beyond what we are doing right now.
For others, the prospect of savings realized by a combined central office and a structural unity makes a compelling case for unifying the city and county governments as a whole, not just the school divisions.
“I think that having one government for the region makes a tremendous amount of sense,” said county School Board member Steve Koleszar. “Right now, the city tries to lure business from the county and vice versa, so it would make sense to not have two competing bodies.”
If the divisions were combined and funded based on a blended composite index, the study showed, the division would have been eligible for nearly $500,000 in additional funding in the 1997-98 school year.
Though the decades-old numbers are promising, state contributions to education have dwindled in the intervening years, said Matt Haas, assistant superintendent for the Albemarle school division.
“With the local composite index, schools are basically all drawing out of the same well in the state, and when one division goes up, the other goes down,” Haas said. “It is not a growing pie to address the needs of all the different counties; it is one pot of money.”
Even if a unified school district meant a lower overall ability to pay, Haas said, the fortunes of divisions in other parts of the state could negate that impact.
“A lot of it is outside of our control, because we might have an influx of free and [reduced-price] lunch students, we might have a greater need, our property values might diminish, those kinds of things,” he said. “So we might say our LCI is going to go up, so we will get more funding from the state, but it is all relative to what is happening in other divisions around the state — they might be worse off.”
But whether to combine would come down to a far more simple calculation, Haas said.
“As a school division employee, I am going to look at the kids first and their needs,” he said. “For me, there would really have to be a clear demonstration of how a merger between the two divisions would benefit the educational interests of our students beyond what we are doing right now.”
A 2014 state Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission report on cities reverting to towns found that only one such case, the city of Bedford consolidating with Bedford County in 2014, was projected to result in increased funding for schools.
Before reversion, the study showed, the city of Bedford’s ability to pay was 36 percent lower than the county’s, which accounted for the expected funding increase.
Two earlier reversions, the city of South Boston consolidating with Halifax County and the city of Clifton Forge joining Allegheny County, showed minimal impact.
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