WJCC School Board Stonehouse District Q&A: Jim Nickols

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Jim Nickols (Courtesy WJCC Schools)

WYDaily sent an identical questionnaire to each candidate running for the Stonehouse District seat on the Williamsburg-James City County School Board.

Incumbent Jim Nickols faces Holly Taylor, a newcomer, in this race. Nickols’ answers are unedited and presented below.

The election takes place Nov. 3.

Read a completed questionnaire from Taylor here.

1. What do you think are the three major issues facing the school district right now? What are your ideas on how to address those issues?

  • No. 1: Alleviating the step compression and strengthening the division’s competiveness with a salary increase. The school division, as a whole, is being funded at the 2009 level.  During the past 6 years, our school division has continued to grow.  Without relief, we cannot remain competitive and it will be a challenge to retain quality teachers.  Although the superintendent and the school board propose a needs-based budget (according to Commonwealth law) the City and the County fund, in great part, the budget.  More help is needed from the Commonwealth.  So, in order to move forward with a salary increase for the personnel of the division, the City Council and the Board of Supervisors must support it, and additional funding must come from the Commonwealth. The figures below show little growth in take home pay:
    • FY 2010-11: No increase
    • FY 2011-12: 1%, in response to pay study
    • FY 2012-13: 1.14% to offset 1% VRS premium
    • FY 2013-14: 3%, plus 1.14% to offset 1% VRS premium
    • FY2014-15: 1%, plus 3.42% to offset 3% VRS premium
  • No. 2: Technology is the second challenge. We piloted purchasing lap-tops for the students at Toano Middle School.  The students, in a survey, rated the pilot successful.  The goal is to expand the program to the other middle schools.  This program is critical to strengthening “computer literacy” for every student.
  • No. 3: Buses. Since I have been on the School Board, the school division’s stakeholders have studied and discussed how to adjust the tier structure in order to shift the start of the high schools to a later time.  The School Board has parsed this problem in every way possible.  It comes down to buses.  We need to expand the bus fleet and hire the requisite drivers and aids.  The support and funding of both the City Council and the Board of Supervisors are needed to make this a reality.

2. Population data suggests that WJCC will need a fourth middle school to accommodate students in the coming years. What do you think of the school division’s plan to build a new middle school on the campus of James Blair Middle School? Would you support the project’s progress in future budgets?

  • The discussion of the fourth middle school began nearly five years ago. In fact, one might say it began when Blair was closed during the Great Recession.  During the conversations, new supervisors were elected to the Board of Supervisors who were not familiar with the discussions about the fourth middle school.  The administration and the school proposed various options and others that the Board of Supervisors had asked the administration and School Board to explore.  The fiscal picture was not bright.  Additionally, the School Board asked the County and the City to do a demographic study of where the growth would be.  The study indicated that the Blair site was a good site.  By using property that the school division owned, the county would save money because it wouldn’t have to purchase new land, and, possibly install new sewer, water, gas, and electricity services.  In terms of design, the School Board recommended one phase, which would have saved the City and County money.  Again, the fiscal picture looked bleak.  The Board of Supervisors opted for constructing the middle school in two phrases.  So, while not ideal, it was the best decision given the fiscal constraints of the City and County.
  • The contracts are in place. The first phase of construction has begun.  If the project is stopped, then we would have to acquire special use permits to install trailers on current schools, and run water, electricity and sewer lines to them.  The Board of Supervisors would have to approve purchasing property, and possibly running sewer, gas, electricity, and water to the site.  We would possibly face penalties on canceling contracts.  We would increase the possibility of constructing other schools at the same time as building the fourth middle school.  Blair Middle School is due to open in 2017. When both phases are completed, Blair Middle School will have a student capacity in excess of 900 students. Frankly, for the sake of the students, we can’t delay constructing Blair Middle School.

3. The WJCC school division budget for FY 2016 was $4 million short of the amount it requested from the City of Williamsburg and James City County. What budget items would you want to ensure are fully funded and not cut back if WJCC schools faces a similar budget situation in FY 2017?

  • My hope is that the school division will be fully funded. It is important to the economy of the City and County to have quality schools.
  • The division has implemented a strategic plan and process improvement plan. These two processes are yielding savings.  The school division is vigilant in seeking ways to be good stewards of the taxpayers’ dollars.  However, we have to avoid doing more with less.  That approach erodes morale and contributes to a high turnover of personnel.
  • The budget is lean from years of reducing programs and staff. In some instances, we were forced to make cuts that placed an undue burden on our personnel.
  • Bottom-line: we are operating on 2009 funding levels, and there isn’t any more room to cut without seriously impairing the quality of education in WJCC.

4. The WJCC school board has discussed starting the school day later for middle and high school students. Do you support later start times for these students? Why or why not?

  • The School Board has discussed this important issue, and the administration spent countless man-hours in looking at various bus route scenarios, adjustments to the beginning and ending of the school day, starting the elementary schools earlier, and so on. We examined the impact of a later high school time on sports, and coordinating with the other school divisions in our conference.  While the research indicates that a later start times for high school students is better, parents who have younger children in school are concerned about having younger children at home alone.
  • It comes down to expanding our bus fleet. With more buses, we need more drivers.  In order to acquire more buses, we need the support of the Board of Supervisors to fund the purchase of more buses and for drivers to operate the buses.

5. Which school improvement projects do you think need to be priority items for the school division? Why?

  • Continue to strengthen the security measures within and around our schools.
  • Stay on track with our Capital Improvement Plan
  • Stay ahead of the growth of the student population

6. Talk about the achievement gap in WJCC Schools. Are the current strategies to close the gap working? Why or why not? What are your ideas to help progress in this area? 

  • Recent data from the Superintendent of Education indicates that the division has narrowed the gap. The strategies put in place indicate that they are working.
  • One has to remember that each school year there is a new cohort of students with their unique needs and challenges.

7. How would you describe the working relationship between the school board and the Board of Supervisors? What can the school board do to improve or enhance this relationship?

  • From my perspective, the relationship with the Board of Supervisors has been professional and respectful. Certainly, there are differences of opinion.  However, I believe the members of the Board of Supervisors, the members of the Williamsburg City Council, and the members of the School Board want the best for our children.  All of us have a vested interest in the welfare and education of the children in our community.

8. How well do you think the school board members work together? What do you think you can bring to the school board’s dynamic?

  • I believe the School Board members have worked and are working well together. It is important that the focus be on the mission of the School Board rather than on the School Board.
  • I think it is important to have only one agenda: what is best for the students and the staff of the school division.
  • I think it is important to listen actively, follow the School Board’s Standing Operating Procedures, adhere to the Commonwealth Statutes governing public education in the Commonwealth and the School Board’s role in delivering a quality public education for all children.
  • As one person of seven, I listen carefully. I read and study all the documents necessary to prepare for each School Board meeting. I work at building consensus.  I strive to be respectful of others.  I seek to make a decision based upon the best information at the time the decision needs to be made.  I don’t have a hidden agenda.

Prepared by James P. Nickols, Candidate for WJCC School Board, Stonehouse District