by Audrey Kocher
Despite the County Executive’s decision to omit the Woodbrook Elementary School expansion/modernization capital improvement project from the 2017 budget request submitted to the Board of Supervisors, the Albemarle County School Board appealed to the Board of Supervisors to fund it (The Daily Progress, 3/1/16) in order to handle overcapacity issues faced by urban ring elementary schools (Cale, Greer, Agnor Hurt, Hollymead, Woodbrook: www.k12albemarle.org).
Background, data on overcrowding and expansion plans provided at a public meeting at Woodbrook Elementary School on 2/10/16 do not support a 44,000 square foot expansion by to accommodate 300 additional students at a cost to taxpayers of $14,000,000 plus an ongoing operating expense of about $1,000,000 per year. While renovation and modernization are likely necessary to keep Woodbrook safe and up to date, the 300 student addition is not. Overcapacity data for the urban ring elementary schools provided by Rosalyn Schmidt in her presentation on 2/10/16 (Woodbrook Elementary Addition, Renovation, & Modernization Community Meeting; www.k12albemarle.org) is never more than 138 in 2018/2019 and drops off to 78 in 2021. Neither of these figures comes close to a 300 student expansion that has been requested for Woodbrook. Overcapacity is a short term problem as the data shows.
While redistricting the entire 5th grade (about 75 students) at Greer to their middle school to relieve overcrowding at Greer was rejected by Greer parents and the school board, words like expansion/school addition hide the reality that expanding Woodbrook will still require redistricting. After the addition to Woodbrook is built, it will be 300 students not 75 from Greer, some as young as first grade from several schools that will be redistricted. Per the presentation on 2/10, some will come from Cale to go to Greer; some from Greer will go to Agnor Hurt; Agnor Hurt and Hollymead students will go to Woodbrook. This will be hard on families with young children who may spend kindergarten at one school then be sent to another the following year. Expansion of Woodbrook is an expensive and deceptive way to “redistrict” for a short term problem. This deceptive redistricting plan is not widely known by the public. In observing public input into the school board budget hearings, Greer parents obviously love their school. How do you think they will react when they learn many more of their children will be redistricted? What about parents at other urban ring elementary schools?
Why should the overcapacity of the urban ring be solely solved by urban ring schools? What role can the more rural schools, some that are under-capacity, play in resolving overcapacity in the urban ring?
Woodbrook is the smallest neighborhood in the county with a school in its midst. Homes are in very close proximity to the school grounds. Per Ms. Schmidt’s presentation on 2/10, the acreage is well within state guidelines for the size of the expansion. However, that does not take into consideration the close proximity of homes to the school. The expansion’s scale and bulk have major impact compared to other schools locatated in neighborhoods.
Concerns about lighting, traffic, safety, home values all relate to the bulk and scale of the project in such a small neighborhood. For example, a planned 2 story school addition will be within about 30 feet from a one level home, overshadowing the home and decreasing the family’s privacy. Unlike Hollymead, Woodbrook does not have a traffic policeman nor does it have school crossing guards. There are no sidewalks for the children to use going to and from school. Children walking to school share the same road with school buses and cars. Cars, school buses entering and leaving the neighborhood travel on a two-lane road. Many are observed to slide through stop signs. This increase in traffic will impede emergency vehicles entering and leaving the neighborhood. As observed recently, a school bus blocked an intersection while waiting for the traffic light to change at the intersection farther up the road.
Is bigger better? Many, especially parents, report bigger schools as a good reason to expand. I interpret “bigger is better” as an equity issue. Do larger schools get more resources? Not according to personal communication with Dean Tistadt, CEO Albemarle Schools. If equity is an issue, it must be addressed. However, I understand instructional resources, staffing, innovative programs are covered in operating budgets, not capital improvement projects.