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Elementary schoolsFormer Columbia school may become canine training facility

The former Cunningham Elementary School, vacant for four years, will again see students under its roof if an approved sale to The Light Academy, a Fluvanna-based private school, goes through.

The fate of the former Columbia Elementary School is less certain after the Fluvanna County Board of Supervisors deferred a decision Wednesday night (Sept. 20) regarding whether to sell to a law enforcement canine training facility or to a couple seeking to develop affordable apartments.

Cunningham school

Supervisors unanimously approved the sale of the former Cunningham Elementary School near Kidds Store to The Light Academy, a private Christian school, for $118,750.

Currently The Light Academy is located in Centre Court, a shopping center outside Lake Monticello.

“Right now we play in a parking lot,” said Joyce Parr, director of The Light Academy, to supervisors. “While we have ample space, it would be ideal to have [additional] classrooms… It would be nice to expand to have some green space or grass to play in.”

Currently The Light Academy educates 50 students in kindergarten through 10th grade. Parr said she hopes the school will be able to expand through the 12th grade and add a preschool, since “everything seems to be over by the Lake” and she is unaware of any preschool options in the Cunningham section of Fluvanna County.

In 2013 the Fluvanna County School Board voted to close Cunningham and Columbia Elementary Schools for budget reasons. The county took over management of the properties and tried to sell them, to no avail.
Last June the county stepped up its tactics and reeled in three bids for the Cunningham building. Delores Carr offered the county $135,000, saying she would use the building for educational and instructional uses and rent out unused space to other businesses, said Eric Dahl, deputy county administrator. But, he said, her proposal relied heavily on hoped-for grants and donations.

A company called NetCap, LLC, offered $8,000 for the building for an unknown purpose, Dahl said. On Aug. 16 supervisors voted to move forward with The Light Academy’s bid.

“I look forward to seeing more kids educated by The Light Academy,” said Supervisor Tony O’Brien after the vote.

Columbia school
The decision over what to do with the former Columbia Elementary School proved more controversial. After 12 members of the public weighed in – most of whom spoke in favor of selling to a canine training facility – supervisors decided to defer their vote.

Earlier this summer Howard and Laurie Hilsinger offered $82,500 for the building and stated their intent to create apartment-style housing primarily assisting low-income families.

Armin Winkler of Rivanna K-9 Services, a canine training facility for law enforcement, military and civil competition sports, offered $50,000, then increased to $85,000 after the bids became public information and he could see his competition, he said. By that time supervisors had already voted to move forward with the Hilsinger proposal.

Because supervisors had already advertised a public hearing for the Hilsinger proposal, they could not move forward with the K-9 proposal without advertising a second public hearing. The decision that night could only involve whether to accept, decline or defer the Hilsinger proposal – not whether to take any action on the K-9 proposal.

The Hilsingers were out of town and did not attend the meeting, but instead sent a friend to briefly speak for them. He said the couple wanted to put four to six apartments into the former school “to provide for working-class families a place to live.” He said the Hilsingers did not wish to raise their bid.

Winkler, a canine specialist, said he trains specialty military and law enforcement groups that “come into the county very low-key” from all over the country and overseas. “Most people don’t even know that we do this here,” he said. “Once in a while a helicopter flies in and leaves and nobody is the wiser.”

Supervisors unanimously decided to defer a decision on the Hilsinger proposal so that they could advertise a public hearing on the Winkler proposal and consider them both together.