As Charlottesville considers building new school facilities to accommodate future population growth, the school division’s policy of accepting students from outside the city has come under more scrutiny.
This year, 294 non-resident students attend Charlottesville public schools, including 88 tuition-exempt students whose parents work for the school division or the city. Non-resident students make up about 7 percent of the division’s K-12 enrollment.
At elementary and middle schools this year, tuition for non-resident students is $1,337 for the first child in a family and $1,094 for each additional child. At Charlottesville High School, tuition is $1,701 for one child and $1,458 for each additional child.
City School Board policy states that non-resident students will only be considered when there is “sufficient room to accommodate the student in the grade of the school requested without additional material costs to the division.”
The policy gives the school division the authority to terminate the enrollment of a non-resident student without a hearing or any other appeal process.
Dede Smith, a former Charlottesville School Board member and former city councilor, said city schools have added homerooms to accommodate non-resident students and she has accused school division leaders of using non-resident enrollment to justify building expensive facilities over the next decade.
“[Charlottesville City Schools] is adding extra classrooms for non-residents, and they are doing it to a degree that they are not admitting,” Smith said. “If they are asking for city taxpayers to expand facilities to accommodate non-resident students, they have to be upfront about it.”
However, division administrators say non-resident students have a negligible impact on overcrowding at city schools and they contribute significant revenue.
“This year, we showed great fidelity to our policy and our goals for what the [non-resident] program is supposed to do,” said Kim Powell, assistant superintendent.
In Charlottesville’s elementary schools, the size of homerooms with one teacher is limited to 24 students. At recent community meetings to get public input on future school facilities, Powell has said that only two elementary school homerooms could have been eliminated if tuition-paying students were removed this year.
Enrollment data for the current school year provided to Smith showed that if tuition-paying students were removed, the third grade at Greenbrier Elementary and kindergarten at Venable Elementary would be well below the 24-to-1 ratio with three homerooms each instead of their existing four.
Powell said that both cases represented “borderline decisions” to add a homeroom; at their current enrollment, consolidating both grades into three homerooms would result in an average of 24.33 students per room, within the division’s acceptable range.
Data from the 2016-17 year showed that two homerooms at Greenbrier and one at Burnley-Moran could have been deemed unnecessary without their tuition-paying students.
“There is no policy that says they will create staffed classrooms for non-resident kids,” Smith said. “I just want them to be honest. This has consequences, and they are not acknowledging them.”
Powell said that inevitable errors in enrollment projections for the next school year result in small homerooms that could be eliminated, regardless of their non-resident enrollment. She said these homerooms are preserved unless more staff is needed at other schools to resolve unacceptable ratios.
“We are committed to honoring the contract for employment and try to honor the particular assignment for which the teacher interviewed,” she said.
Greenbrier has 51 non-resident students attending this year, by far the highest total among Charlottesville’s elementary schools. Venable and Burnley-Moran are next, with 27 and 26, respectively.
This summer, Greenbrier added a trailer classroom with an adjoining bathroom to house a preschool class. The new classroom cost approximately $73,000.
Smith said she was concerned that Charlottesville children were being sent to the trailer to make room for non-resident students in the school building. Greenbrier Principal Pat Cuomo said the trailer was added to make room in the school building for the school’s Social-Emotional Academic Learning pilot program.
Geenbrier’s SEAL program currently has first- and second-grade classrooms with 15 students each, including some who are districted for other Charlottesville elementary schools.
“The SEAL classrooms needed to be in the building with other students in those grades,” Cuomo said. “We don’t want them to feel different from any other student.”
Cuomo said the trailer classroom has proven to be ideal for Greenbrier’s preschool class. “The kids are allowed to be louder there,” he said. “It’s a more age-appropriate setting.”
In a report commissioned by the School Board this year, VMDO Architects projected enrollment at Charlottesville’s elementary and middle schools to be well beyond the school buildings’ functional capacities within the next several years.
The School Board is considering moving the city’s preschool program to a new centralized facility, expanding Buford Middle School to include sixth-grade students and moving fifth grade back to the elementary schools. The division also is seeking public input on whether to build a new elementary school, or to construct large additions at three elementary schools.
The total cost of these projects would be $95 million to $140 million, according to estimates provided to VMDO by a third-party contractor.
“The addition of new schools, or the expansion of our elementary schools, will not be caused by out-of-district students,” said Juandiego Wade, chairman of the School Board. “I’m confident in saying that, because of the way they are spread out across the division.”
Powell noted that the division added 445 K-12 students between 2011 and 2016, while non-resident enrollment grew by just 36 students during that time.
“We are not having discussions about adding capacity because of those additional 36 students,” she said.
Tuition from non-resident students generates about $350,000 in annual revenue for the division. Powell said net yearly revenue from the program exceeds $1 million, since enrolling these students makes Charlottesville eligible for additional per-pupil funding from the state.
Powell said the cost of new hires tied to increased enrollment at a school is subtracted when calculating the program’s net revenue.
“Our ability to afford some programs that distinguish our city’s schools is greatly helped by this revenue,” she said.
“We feel like it is a net benefit to have out-of-district students come to our schools,” Wade said.
However, Powell said the division’s non-resident program may be pared down as Charlottesville’s schools, once under-enrolled, are feeling pressure from the city’s population growth.
“The evaluations and answers we give to non-resident families are going to be changing in light of this,” she said. “We have to manage the program even more carefully.”