County schools look ahead to looming crowding issues

Maxed out: Western Albemarle and Albemarle high schools are set to exceed their enrollment capacity sooner than county officials anticipated. Maxed out: Western Albemarle and Albemarle high schools are set to exceed their enrollment capacity sooner than county officials anticipated.

As the Albemarle County Public School District works to find a short-term fix to overcrowding at two local elementary schools, parents and officials are eyeing a capacity crunch down the line. The writing is on the wall: When the ever-growing classes of school kids across the county hit ninth grade, the county will face costly expansions and redistricting. But there are no easy fixes.

A pair of committees convened by the district and made up mostly of local parents are tackling capacity issues at Agnor-Hurt and Meriwether Lewis elementary schools, and will offer suggestions for redrawing neighborhood feeder patterns for the coming school year at public meetings on December 10 and 11. At the behest of the district, the volunteers looking at the Western Albemarle feeder patterns are also looking beyond short-term reshuffling.

At a Redistricting Committee meeting at Murray Elementary School last Tuesday, county schools Chief Operating Officer Josh Davis flipped through maps showing Crozet neighborhoods where more young families than expected have arrived in recent years: Wickham Pond, Western Ridge, Grayrock, Bargamin, and others. The neighborhoods currently send kids to Brownsville Elementary—some 380 students, by what Davis says is a conservative estimate—but may shift to the so far less-crowded Crozet Elementary. It’s what happens when this group moves past grade school that has many worried.

“This is a growing area for the county, and it’s going to continue to grow,” Davis said. “It’s going to influence not only the elementary, but middle and high schools.”

And maybe sooner than the district is prepared for. The district’s long-term capital improvement plan calls for an $8.6 million addition to Western, but it wouldn’t be completed until at least 2020. The school is expected to exceed its capacity four years before that.

There are two other options to avoid overcrowding, Davis said. One is a brand-new high school. Superintendent Dr. Pamela Moran has been scoping out land in the northern part of the county along Route 29. A new school there would alleviate capacity issues at all three existing high schools, said Davis, “but it’s the most unlikely option, because of the cost.”

The tool employed first, he said, will be the same one the committees are struggling to use to ease enrollment pressure at area elementary schools—steering one school’s overflow to another’s empty seats—but on a bigger scale. Committee members took a first look at the task last week, examining neighborhoods that could be peeled off the Western feeder and added to Monticello High School’s instead.

Some members balked at the piecemeal approach, saying it was likely to anger families.

“We’ve spent how many months talking about a shift in the feeder pattern for one elementary school?” asked Mary Margaret Frank, a Murray Elementary mom. The pushback and uproar from parents has been intense, she said, and shifting kids to another high school entirely would be worse. “You’re moving people later in life, moving people to a completely different feeder pattern. That’s going to be exceptionally painful.”

And not particularly effective. A suggested redrawing of boundaries discussed at last week’s meeting that would move several swaths of Crozet and Ivy from Brownsville and Murray Elementary’s territory to Red Hill’s—a section south of Batesville, another along Dick Woods Road, and a third around the intersection of I-64 and the 250 Bypass—would shift only 59 high schoolers from Western to Monticello. To some, that might look a little like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, considering it would buy Western only about a year of avoiding its capacity ceiling. But that’s not quite a fair assessment, said Davis, considering it’s such a cost-effective measure.

“It’s the most efficient way to use our existing capacity,” he said. “That’s what our funding body, the Board of Supervisors, is going to want to make sure of—that we’ve efficiently used the resources we do have before asking for additional investments.”

But some concerned parents said it’s also on the heads of the Supervisors and other elected officials to think long-term, starting with the planning process.

“There are some political pressures that need to be brought to bear on the Board of Supervisors and developers in this area to help,” said Kelly Gobble, a Crozet committee member. “They are professionals, and we’re sitting here as volunteers trying to make sense of it all. It shouldn’t work in such a disparate way.”

Frank agreed that those who hold the purse strings have to be looking to the future. “No matter what we do next year and the next year, we need to keep an eye on this,” she said.

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