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Half of the speakers who went before the dais last night during the James City County Board of Supervisors’ pre-budget hearing gave remarks about the proposed fourth middle school, a project the supervisors had already approved but decided to revisit after their retreat Saturday.
Board members called for a meeting with the Williamsburg City Council and the Williamsburg-James City County School Board after Kevin Onizuk (Jamestown) and Sue Sadler (Stonehouse) expressed reluctance to move forward with plans to build the school at the site of the former James Blair Middle School, adding they would like to see enrollment numbers and determine if a new school is the best use of county funds.
Eight residents spoke during the pre-budget hearing. Resident John Magda urged the board to “do it right the first time” and review as much data as possible before making a decision.
“Do we really need that school today? Do we need it this year? Do we need to find, maybe, another location?” Magda said. “It’s a tight corner, it really is. It’s an expensive building … What are we saddling our children with years down the road?”
He added the site’s proximity to railroad tracks and the Eastern State Hospital could present safety hazards for children traveling to and from the school.
Resident Michael Loy said he came to speak on behalf of many people who are concerned about “the lack of transparency and communication associated with the project.”
He referred to the School Site Selection Committee, which was formed to identify possible locations for the school but only met once, as an example of the School Board’s determination that the former James Blair was the only feasible site for the middle school.
“To date, the process toward swinging a wrecking ball at James Blair has been approved quietly and begins this August, without any discussion of other locations,” Loy said. “I cannot impress upon you enough to know that I believe right now is the time to reconsider where this school goes before more money is wasted in the eyes of your constituents.”
Resident Joe Swanenberg advocated for reviewing updated enrollment projections and evaluating whether more students can be served by filling empty classrooms.
“I hope we can move forward in getting realistic, quality, updated enrollment numbers,” Swanenberg said. “Some people tell me we simply don’t even need the school, certainly not even now, and we can look at scheduling issues.”
Resident Dave Jarman focused on what he called the “schools funding crisis,” arguing the school division’s Fiscal Year 2017-2026 Capital Improvements Plan, which includes the fourth middle school, will “dwarf” the crisis if “school leadership continues ‘business as usual.’”
He added the School Board should consider cost-saving options to make up for the anticipated budget gap in fiscal 2017.
“A judicious review of these and, perhaps, other savings opportunities, as well as deferral or cancellation of portions of the current building program, is critical to address the pending school funding crisis,” Jarman said.
Residents also asked the board to consider funding stormwater management initiatives and art partnerships in the fiscal 2017 budget. The board is scheduled to approve a budget in May.
Correction: The month the Board of Supervisors will approve a budget was erroneously stated. The Board will approve a budget in May.