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The James City County Board of Supervisors and the Williamsburg-James City County School Board approved plans last night to finance the construction of the fourth middle school by issuing bonds, despite attempts by members of both boards to delay the vote.
On the Board of Supervisors, the vote was split 3-2, with Supervisors Kevin Onizuk (Jamestown) and Sue Sadler (Stonehouse) opposing.
Onizuk, who had voted in support of the fourth middle school in 2014, argued that expanding the three middle schools, which was recommended by the school division’s Middle School Learning & Facility Committee in 2013, would be a “significant cost savings” over building the new school that is estimated to cost $25,798,759.
“To me, a $20 million project is not a political ploy,” Onizuk said, referencing a comment Board Chairman Michael Hipple (Powhatan) made about the controversy during his community budget meeting last week.
“As we look back and look forward, we need to make sure we keep our priority our fiscal and strategic planning. Just because we have [money] doesn’t mean we have to spend it,” he added, soliciting a “hear, hear” from a member of the audience.
Onizuk said questions remain for him as to how the school division will handle Lafayette High School’s athletic facility needs following the demolition of the former James Blair Middle School — the intended site of the 600-student school — which has been used as a practice space for athletes.
“I don’t want to spend more money to bail out the schools if there is not a plan in place,” Onizuk said.
Sadler said she had been surprised to learn the vote would take place that evening, as it was previously planned for May, and felt casting a vote would mean the county is “steamrolling” or “plowing ahead” with the project.
“If we do in fact need another middle school and we need more space, this [Middle School Learning & Facility Committee] study that took place, I think that’s an option we need to look at,” Sadler said. “There are different things out there we could consider before we start singing ‘Wrecking Ball’ along with Miley Cyrus.”
Supervisor Ruth Larson (Berkeley) argued it would not be “smart planning” to expand the three middle schools because some areas of the schools, like hallways, cannot be altered to hold more people.
She said the Board of Supervisors needs to begin considering future school sites to avoid the current contention with the James Blair location, but said she would support moving forward with the fourth middle school financing.
“I think there is a very heavy price paid by not acting,” Larson said.
Vice Chairman John McGlennon (Roberts) reminded supervisors of the county’s history with closing James Blair Middle School and attempts to find an alternative school site. He argued it “only makes sense to go ahead” because the county’s credit rating puts it in a good position to finance the fourth middle school through bonds.
Hipple praised the county’s AAA bond rating as an indication of the county’s excellence at managing money, which could include bonds used to pay for the fourth middle school. He urged fellow supervisors not to “throw a dart over a hill without a target” when it comes to moving forward with the project.
After McGlennon moved to ratify the financing documents, Onizuk made a motion to postpone the vote until the May 10 meeting, which would be after the April 22 joint meeting with the School Board and the Williamsburg City Council. The motion failed with Hipple, Larson and McGlennon opposing.
The WJCC School Board approved the county bond financing in a 5-2 vote without discussion last night. Berkeley representative Sandy Young moved to amend the agenda so the bond financing would be a discussion item, rather than an action item, but the motion failed, with all members but Young and Holly Taylor (Stonehouse) opposing.
With the financing documents approved, James City County can now go out to market and sell bonds, while the School Board can award a contract for the demolition of James Blair. Demolition could begin as early as this summer.