When the Albemarle Board of Supervisors holds a public hearing April 10 on their revisions to County Executive Jeffrey Richardson’s proposed $428.5 million budget, citizens will be asked to weigh in on a $35.1 million project that will begin a transformation of the county’s approach to high school education.
“[High School 2022] is in response to work at the state level to arrive at what the Virginia Department of Education calls the ‘Profile of a Graduate,’” said Matt Haas, the deputy school superintendent. “It’s different from the model they have been under for well more than a century which is a transcript approach where students accumulate credit hours toward graduation with academic work.”
Supervisors decided on March 27 to include funding for a first center in the first year of the projected five-year capital improvement program. They did so with the assumption that a bond referendum will be held in November to gauge citizen support for raising revenues for the project as well as other board initiatives.
“Decisions made in the first year of the capital improvement program may impact your future resource availability,” said Lori Allshouse, the director of the county’s Office of Management and Budget.
“It may result in potential tax rate increases in [future] years,” she added. “You have to be thoughtful.”
The plan is to eventually create two high school “centers” while renovating all four of the county’s existing high school buildings.
When Richardson recommended his budget in mid-February, he proposed a capital budget for FY2019 of $57.7 million. That has since increased in part because the school system’s price tag for the first center increased from $32 million to $35.1 million since Richardson’s budget was unveiled.
The county’s new approach to high school will try to balance “content knowledge” with career exploration, workplace skills and civic responsibility.
“[The School Board] landed on what they were calling the ‘village model’ which represents maintaining the four high schools that we have and then developing centers where specific programs would be offered to students,” Haas said.
That would lead to a need to increase the school system’s transportation budget to ensure students can get to the centers. The school board has already increased the budget for pupil transportation to allow students to attend the STEM academies that have opened at traditional high schools in recent years.
“That to me is the first step in starting to look at our transportation system for secondary students as more of a transit system,” Haas said. “Transportation is a big component of this.”
The first center’s location has not yet been determined.
“We will be looking at existing facilities,” Haas said. “We’re not necessarily saying we have to build a building. There are sites around the county that we can look at to renovate to do one of our centers.”
The goal is to have the first center open at the beginning of the 2021 academic year to serve 600 students.
Supervisor Rick Randolph said he would like the first center to be located within the vicinity of Rio Road and U.S. 29. The county has hired the firm Stantec to look at the economic potential of locating government services in that area.
“I think we’ve got to get on a parallel track to be working together because you’re not looking at a small sum of money,” Randolph said.
The five-year capital improvement plan also includes $46.9 million for modernizing the county’s four existing high schools.
Supervisor Diantha McKeel said the Regional Transit Partnership can help address the transportation component. The informal group consists of city, county, UVA and others and meets every two months to discuss the logistics of getting the area’s many transit systems to work together.
“In a perfect world and a perfect picture, we end up with a transportation system umbrella and all of these partners would be playing together for a really efficient transit system between the county and the city and I’m hopeful we can get there,” McKeel said.
Supervisor Ann Mallek said she was reluctant to commit to the project until the referendum is held this fall.
“We don’t know if it’s going to pass,” Mallek said. “That puts the focus on the decision in order and also gives us extra time to be thinking about these concepts and getting the transit in order.”
Albemarle County voters approved a bond referendum in 2016 by a nearly three to one margin that authorized the county to spend as much as $35 million for school improvement projects. One supervisor said that referendum has given county officials the experience they need to move forward with the next one.
“This time you have a history of what this county has done in terms of bond referendums, specifically for education projects,” said Supervisor Ned Gallaway.
The proposed capital budget calls for $35.1 million to be spent on the first center during fiscal year 2019. That includes: $3.78 million in design costs; $25.2 million in construction costs; $2.52 million for furniture and equipment; and $3.6 million for land acquisition.
Gallaway suggested that the capital costs to the county taxpayer could be lower if a public- private partnership were to be formed.
County Attorney Greg Kamptner said in order to get the referendum on the ballot, supervisors would need to act quickly.
“The key deadline date for us is August 17 which is the date by which we need to have the court order a special election which will be held at the same time as the general November election,” Kamptner said.
Supervisor Liz Palmer wanted to know what that would mean for the tax rate. Deputy County Executive Bill Letteri said there would be none for fiscal year 2019, but there would be a need for “additional resources” in following years.
“For years and years, we didn’t have bond referendums because the board just decided what was going to happen,” said Mallek. “But there were a lot of people who argued in favor for many years, and I sort of came late to the program on that, that to generate community support for these projects of this size and these tax increases that it was very important they have community support.”
Supervisors initially voted 3-3 on including the first phase of the center in the budget that will go to their public hearing on April 10. Supervisors Mallek, Palmer and Norman Dill voted against.
However, Dill changed his vote after a debate to order to move the process forward.
Two days later, supervisors held another budget work session to learn more about the center.
“The first center to come online is what we’re calling the pilot center,” said Rosalyn Schmitt, director of planning and budget for Albemarle County Public Schools. “It is leased space that will have a soft opening this coming school year with anywhere from 20 to 40 students. We hope to grow that over time to as many as 150 students.”
Schmitt said the pilot is to test out the logistics for transitioning to a center.
Palmer asked what the backup plan would be if the center initiative did not proceed due to an unsuccessful referendum.
“Western Albemarle is sustained with no trailers but if nothing is done they’re going to start popping up trailers,” Schmitt said. “If you don’t make space changes either with the center or the modernization, you are going to be a limiting factor for the High School 2022 program.”
For decades, Albemarle paid for projects without asking voters to back up capital projects with an official vote.
“The oversight committee discussed the possibility of considering bond referendums as more of a regular practice in the county,” Allshouse said.
County staff have managed to delay a tax increase associated with the last referendum due to the use of year-end surpluses caused by rising property assessments.
“For two years we were able to defer that,” Allshouse said.
Stormwater fee on hold
Albemarle staff have been operating under the assumption that a stormwater utility fee would be levied in order to pay for an enhanced water resources protection program that has been discussed for several years. Supervisors last got a briefing on the initiative in December.
“The Board of Supervisors has not publicly discussed this proposed stormwater utility fee program in its totality nor received or reviewed the final staff proposals to date,” Randolph said. “Despite this reality, the Board of Supervisors has continued to receive daily emails and calls from primarily rural residents opposed to the stormwater utility fee in the rural areas of Albemarle.”
Randolph suggested an April 11 work session be used to discuss alternatives to the fee.
Other supervisors agreed it is time to reconsider the fee.
“It’s good to signal to the public that what we’ve seen so far doesn’t work and we agree at least with some of the stuff we have heard from the public,” Palmer said.
“It just seems like the consensus is that we don’t need a stormwater utility fee and we need to fund all these projects that everyone wants to do,” Dill said.
Richardson said there is $1.6 million devoted to the water resources protection program in the next fiscal year. He added the board’s next work session will look for alternative sources of funding.
“Let’s have a general discussion on [April 11] with a focus on the urban infrastructure and what some of the projects and issues are and then maybe a general discussion also about options to consider moving forward, recognizing there are differences between the rural and urban areas,” Richardson said.