WJCC School Board Candidates Take On New Middle School, Safety In Forum

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All six candidates for the Williamsburg-James City County School Board participated in a forum Oct. 8 at the Williamsburg Regional Library. (Kirsten Petersen/ WYDaily)
All six candidates for the Williamsburg-James City County School Board participated in a forum Oct. 8 at the Williamsburg Regional Library. (Kirsten Petersen/ WYDaily)

Candidates for the Williamsburg-James City County School Board voiced their stances on the fourth middle school, security and standardized testing during a forum Thursday night.

More than 70 people came out to the Williamsburg Regional Library to see the candidates and ask questions. The forum was hosted by the WJCC Parent-Teacher Association Council and moderated by Meredith Collins, publisher of Williamsburg’s Next Door Neighbors magazine.

All six candidates for the three open School Board seats attended the forum: newcomers John “Rio” Riofrio and Sandra Young, who are competing for the Berkeley seat; newcomers James Beers and Petra Nadal, who are competing for the Roberts seat; and incumbent Jim Nickols and newcomer Holly Taylor, who are vying for the Stonehouse seat.

When asked about their thoughts on the fourth middle school, the majority of the candidates expressed concern over the school’s location and cost. Nadal and Young went further, questioning whether the school division needed the new school by its target opening date of 2018.

“One of things that concerns me is, while I think it’s a beautiful plan, I’m not sure we need it,” Young said, adding the board should consider revising scheduling so all classrooms can be filled throughout the day.

Nadal said the proposed location of the school, the former James Blair Middle School and current administrative offices, is not a good site for any school and said it would be better to lose the money already spent on the project than spend more on a bad choice.

“I have a lot of issues with the middle school, and I feel, before the shovel goes into the ground, it can be stopped and reassessed,” Nadal said.

The candidates were asked about how the school board should address safety in light of the Oct. 1 mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon. All candidates supported enhanced security at schools, but Taylor reiterated that overall school safety would be her top priority as a prospective school board member.

“I would love to have law enforcement officials come in and give us more effective ways to improve our safety,” Taylor said.

After Nadal said she was under the impression the school board voted down measures that would enhance security, Nickols responded by discussing security grants the school division has applied for and the division’s “hand-in-glove” relationship with the Williamsburg and James City County police departments.

“Everything that we can humanly do to protect our children, I think we are doing,” Nickols said. “Kids don’t learn in an environment where they don’t feel safe.”

The candidates all said they would be open to discussion about starting the school day later and praised the value of arts education. They also fielded questions submitted by Lafayette students taking an advanced placement government course, with the last question challenging the candidates to identify the top issues WJCC high-schoolers face.

Riofrio targeted Virginia’s Standards of Learning assessments, asserting that “giving students back a genuine love of learning” is the biggest challenge educators face and WJCC schools should engage in conversations about standardized testing.

“[Students] are very good at checking the box. They can follow all the rules, but if I push them and get them to think critically, it’s a challenge for them,” Riofrio said of his teaching experience at the college level.

Beers said controlling class sizes while accommodating growth in enrollment will be a significant challenge in the coming years.

“If it means we need to bring more trailers in to reduce that number, we need to do that,” Beers said. “I think that will have a real impact on the quality of education kids will have in the high schools.”

School Board Chairman Jim Kelly (Jamestown), who attended the forum, said it was good to hear the candidates remark on the high quality of the school division. He said it is up to the voters to decide which candidates should represent them on the board.

“We’ll work with whoever is elected,” Kelly said.

James City County school board members are elected to four-year terms. The seven-member board consists of five elected members representing James City County districts and two members appointed by the Williamsburg City Council to represent the city at-large.

The open seats in the Berkeley and the Roberts districts are being vacated by school board members Ruth Larson and Heather Cordasco, respectively, because they are running for seats on the James City County Board of Supervisors.

Elections for the school board and the Board of Supervisors will take place Nov. 3.