Redistricting Committee Recommends “Holding Pattern” for Elementary Schools

Crozet Elementary School

There is no compelling reason to change the student population at Ivy’s Meriwether Lewis Elementary School, the parent committee representing the four elementaries in the Western Feeder Pattern concluded at their meeting Dec. 18 at Henley Middle School.

The committee, which included parents from Brownsville, Crozet, Meriwether Lewis and Murray schools, had been formed to recommend to Albemarle schools superintendent Pam Moran how or whether to redistrict 55 children out of Meriwether Lewis, which is technically that much over its intended capacity, for the next school year.

There had been a heavy turnout of speakers at a public hearing the committee had sponsored Dec. 11 at Meriwether Lewis School, where sentiment was strongly against redistricting, and 323 interested people, mainly parents of affected children, filled out a school survey on the question. The holding pattern option got approval from 82 percent of survey respondents. Four possible options for shifting neighborhoods to different schools, mainly to Murray Elementary, were all voted down by more than half of respondents. The idea of adding on to Red Hill Elementary in North Garden, which might have shifted Batesville-area kids to Red Hill, was also rejected by two to one. The same majority agreed with adding on to Crozet Elementary.

Former Woodbrook Elementary principal Keith Hammon, an at-large member, made the motion for the “holding pattern” option and it passed 11-0.

Murray parent Kate Bakich said, “We want effective use of an addition to Crozet Elementary. The process is really ongoing. It’s important to see if there is a data trend in enrollment.”

Fellow Murray parent Mary Margaret Frank summed up the group’s consensus as, “There’s no evidence for any action.”

Crozet parent Jeffrey House said, “The benefit of not moving kids now is that we maintain flexibility for a future redistricting.”

County schools Chief Operating Officer Josh Davis asked the committee whether they favored an addition to Crozet or construction of a new school in the feeder pattern. The Crozet Master Plan anticipated that a third elementary would be needed in Crozet and a possible location for one was projected in eastern Crozet. But that site would have had to have been garnered by the county through a rezoning proffer from a developer—a payment for being allowed a higher residential density—and the conjectured property has meanwhile been designed as a by-right subdivision, Westlake Hills, with no proffers in play.

On another 11-0 vote, the committee recommended that the school division’s Long Range Planning Committee revisit the matter of adding on to Crozet, now projected to raise the capacity there to 472 students (currently 342) and to consider a larger scale addition that would raise the school’s capacity to more than 600 students. The committee considers Crozet to be the best candidate for expansion of the schools in the feeder pattern. Among its recommendations it said that schools within the designated growth area (Brownsville and Crozet) should be the ones getting additions, not the two schools in rural areas.

Davis said afterward that enrollment projections do not support the construction of a new school, which he estimated would cost $25 to $30 million to build. “Any new school we build will be for 450 to 600 kids,” Davis said. “It will be explored, but the addition to Crozet is the more plausible option.”

A recommendation to add on to the Crozet school could not go before the Board of Supervisors for consideration before July, Davis told the committee and it would take another year of design and preparation before it could get a funding allocation. The earliest the addition could be usable is the 2016-17 school year.  Davis said, “There is a 99 percent chance that there will be redistricting once the Crozet addition is built.” Most of the shifting would likely be from Brownsville to Crozet.

Tiffany Barber, who also sits on the Long Range Planning Committee, said she had heard that some parents at Crozet Elementary were opposed to an expansion of the school. “We assume it’s a good solution,” she said, “but it may not be.”

House differed with that and said, “Some parents think the school should be bigger to reach a critical mass for parent involvement.”

The committee recommended that “for parity,” Red Hill School get modernized and renovated, but for the sake of its current students and not with an eye to moving new ones in. For the sake of supporting communities, the committee recommended that students not be shifted across feeder pattern boundaries.

Hammon said that the growth in elementary school student numbers means that capacities at Henley Middle School and Western Albemarle High School should be looked at again by the LRPC. Davis had told the committee at an earlier meeting that county school officials are examining whether a new high school should be built in northern Albemarle. “If you build a new high school, you wouldn’t build on to Western [because there would be a countywide redistricting.] The alternative to a new high school is to build on to Western and Monticello.”

Davis asked the committee if it would be willing to meet in November, once the next school year’s enrollment numbers are known, to review its recommendations. It agreed.

At a meeting of the Crozet PTO the next evening, parents were alarmed to realize that an overcapacity problem at Meriwether Lewis, from which they expected they might accept more students, had become a move to add on to their school and potentially enlarge it to twice its current capacity.

“Having 450 students is imaginable, maybe even healthy,” said parent Karen Rubendall, “but going to 600 is too much.”

Designed by VMDO Architects of Charlottesville, “new” Crozet Elementary opened 25 years ago as a state-of-the-art building. It was expanded in 1995. PTO leaders had asked Ken and Maggie Thacker, both school architects at VMDO whose children go to Crozet, to comment on the prospect of another addition. The Thackers were familiar with the design of the addition to Brownsville done six years ago.

“We see Crozet as ideally sized at 350 students,” said Ken Thacker. “Economies of scale are causing school divisions to build schools the size of Brownsville. Growing room was designed into Brownsville, but seven kindergarten classes at Brownsville means they are about to be at capacity.

“An addition to Crozet is possible,” said Thacker, adding that he would like to do the design. A new wing of either one or two stories could connect to the 1995 addition.

“I see a discrepancy between Crozet and Brownsville due to redistricting,” he said, referring to two earlier redistrictings that transferred Crozet students to Brownsville and later to Meriwether Lewis. “It could be remedied by having more kids at Crozet.”

Maggie Thacker said the problem with an addition to Crozet is that “it would tax the core areas—the library and the cafeteria—that aren’t easily expanded.

“I feel strongly about the capacity and the chemistry of the school. I was an active PTO member. There was a rich community with lots of engagement. After the second redistricting, we never recovered. We always turned to the same individuals for volunteer effort. And they’re worn out.”

Rubendall suggested that Crozet and Brownsville be made kindergarten through third grade schools, that the county build a new school in Crozet to be for grades four through six, that Henley Middle School house grades seven through nine and Western Albemarle have grades 10 through 12.

The possibility of renovating the old Crozet elementary school across the street and splitting the grades was raised. Thacker said that renovating the old school “is not a show stopper.” It is currently the home of The Field School, a middle school for boys, and Crozet Arts, a nonprofit arts school. For many years it housed the Charlottesville Waldorf School.

Crozet PTO members said they wanted to meet with local representatives to the LRPC soon.