The desire for a new auditorium and addition to Amherst County High School among county public school officials has been made clear in a string of recent meetings on concept plans for the large-scale project.
Now the question is: How will the county and school division pay for it?
The Amherst County School Board received a presentation from Josh Bower, an architect representing a Charlottesville firm working with Amherst County Public Schools on the project, during its Nov. 11 meeting. The addition is broken into the following phases:
Phase 1a, a new 1,100-seat auditorium in the rear of the school adjacent to the gymnasiums where a driver’s education course has been used, as well as a new additional parking lot that includes the extension of Lancer Lane. This phase also includes a commons area for the auditorium and two gyms with concessions, restrooms and space to display the school’s athletic accomplishments. The estimated cost is $11,576,241.
Phase 1b, renovation of the cafeteria kitchen, a new food court and conversion of the existing dining room into classrooms, for a price tag of $2,259,163.
Phase 2, conversion of the existing 400-plus seat auditorium into education space and renovation of career and technical education (CTE) labs. Cost estimates are $3,275,778.
Phase 3, upgrades to Lancer Stadium to make it more handicapped-accessible and a new fieldhouse adjacent to baseball field to serve the school’s baseball and softball teams as well as provide public restrooms. The estimated price tag is $2,023,218.
The total project cost combined is $19.1 million. Superintendent Rob Arnold said the project is broken into phases for the purpose of addressing as money becomes available.
“We understand there are budget limitations,” Bower said of the phased approach.
Arnold said the second and third phases can be done in upcoming years while the first two are more pressing.
“Each one of those things can happen on its own,” Arnold said of each phase.
Arnold said the school division has $8.9 million that could be contributed toward the project, including its capital improvement plan and more than $5 million in federal money given out as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The board agreed by consensus and without a formal vote that for now it will pursue Phase 1a and 1b, which combined cost $13.8 million, and commit up to $8 million toward it. A few board members noted the importance of keeping some money in the CIP to address other needs for the division.
The remaining money will be requested from the Amherst County Board of Supervisors. Arnold is set to present the request during the board of supervisors’ Nov. 16 meeting.
Supervisors may be faced with discussing an increase to the real estate tax rate to help contribute toward the project.
“I’m just concerned putting on this big addition when we have other needs in the community,” school board member Ginger Burg said. “It’s not fully funded.”
Vice Chair Abby Thompson said she recalls the price tag on a new auditorium, a project long hoped for, being $8 million to $9 million and now it’s doubled. She said if the community is behind the project she can support it, though she is cautious about exhausting too much CIP money without other needs getting addressed, and she is in favor of moving forward and seeing with the board of supervisors is willing to do.
“I definitely think we need a new auditorium,” Thompson said.
Chair Priscilla Liggon said she didn’t hear any comments from the public during two recent town hall meeting urging school officials not to do the project.
“If not now with the auditorium, then when?” Liggon said. “I think we have to give it a go, a try...and if it can’t happen, we can at least say we tried.”
School board member Chris Terry said he would like to proceed but wants money in the CIP to cover other possible projects such as adding air conditioning to the bus fleet.
“I want this auditorium as much as anyone in this room,” Terry said. “It definitely needs upgrades.”
Arnold said the federal stimulus money would be spent well before the deadline to exhaust that money.
“That would come off the books well before the 2024 deadline,” Arnold said of that specific funding source.
School officials long have said the current auditorium is outdated, restrictive and doesn’t properly serve as adequate gathering space for the Amherst community.
“I grew up in Nelson County and I’ve been so jealous of their auditorium,” school board member Amanda Wright, referring to the Nelson high and middle school shared facility.
Terry said he is hopeful supervisors will receive the request positively and the two boards can find a way to move forward in the largest envisioned school construction project in more than 20 years.
“I hope it can happen like we want it to,” said Terry. “It is a big project. The high school would benefit, the community will benefit. It will be a great thing for Amherst County, not just the schools.”