A ‘highly emotional’ process, WJCC School Board considers redistricting for new middle school

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The WJCC School Board discussed ways to redistrict middle school students to the new James Blair Middle School at their meeting Tuesday night. (Sarah Fearing/ WYDaily)
The WJCC School Board discussed ways to redistrict middle school students to the new James Blair Middle School at their meeting Tuesday night. (Sarah Fearing/ WYDaily)

As contractors raise the walls of the new James Blair Middle School, the Williamsburg-James City County School Board is grappling with another issue: Which students will attend James Blair when it opens in September 2018?

With past redistricting in mind, School Board members opened the first discussion of many Tuesday night concerning redistricting WJCC schools for the 2018-2019 school year.

When the new James Blair Middle School on Ironbound Road in Williamsburg opens, several hundred middle school students – and perhaps more from high school or elementary school – will shift to a new school.

WJCC Schools has redistricted twice before, in 2007 and 2010, which caused some “heartache and tumult,” School Board Chair Kyra Cook said.

“Redistricting is always a very difficult, highly emotional activity,” Board member James Beers said. “I just hope we don’t go through what we went through in 2010. The process they used in 2010 was incorrect.”

The goal is to get all three existing middle schools – Toano, Berkeley and Hornsby – down to 85 percent capacity, school division spokeswoman Betsy Overkamp-Smith said Tuesday. Toano and Berkeley are over capacity and Hornsby is at 99 percent, according to School Board documents.

James Blair Middle School is designed to hold up to 600 students, with room for an additional 300 if expanded.

School Board members discussed several issues revolving around redistricting, including whether high school or elementary school students will also be redistricted to address other division issues, criteria for redistricting consultants and integrating neighborhoods with different economic situations.

Although redistricting was sparked by the construction of James Blair, it gives an opportunity to address other “division issues,” according to School Board agenda documents.

School Board members wrestled with the idea and process of redistricting multiple levels Tuesday night, some advocating for redistricting all at once and others taking a passive approach.

Calling redistricting a “cumbersome” and “emotional process,” School Board member Jim Kelly suggested the school division redistricts middle school students, encompassing grades six through eight, then later consider high school or elementary school.

WJCC students built a model of the new James Blair Middle School, which was displayed at Fridays joint budget meeting with the School Board, Board of Supervisors, and City Council. Sarah Fearing/WYDaily)
WJCC students built a model of the new James Blair Middle School, which was displayed at a joint budget meeting with the School Board, Board of Supervisors, and City Council. (Sarah Fearing/WYDaily)

“I think it would serve us well to [redistrict] the middle school, make sure we understand what the right process is, and then go look at doing elementary or high school after that,” Kelly said.

While there was a consensus to avoid redistricting elementary school students, the Board was hung on whether to redistrict at the high school level.

Being close to – and over – capacity is a key concern and reason to redistrict high school, Cook said. The three schools, Jamestown, Warhill and Lafayette, are at 110, 90 and 88 percent capacity, respectively, according to School Board documents.

While expansions for the three schools are proposed for construction by 2022, Cook said redistricting the high schools could delay the capital cost of expansion for a few years.

The role of and criteria for contracted redistricting consultants was also a hot topic at the School Board meeting. The School Board elected to hire a full-service consultant, meaning they will create opportunities for public engagement and draw proposed redistricting maps.

Several Board members said they would like to see the consultant work to integrate communities with different economic situations.

“Our housing patterns are economically segregated,” Cook said.

School Board member Julie Hummel added that she felt the last consultant in 2010 “clearly did not know our community” when they redistricted.

The redistricting conversation will continue April 18 at the next regular School Board meeting at the Stryker Center, located at 412 N. Boundary Street in Williamsburg.

Fearing may be reached at sarah.f@localvoicemedia.com.

A proposed timeline for redistricting WJCC Schools was included in School Board documents Tuesday night. Courtesy WJCC Schools)
A proposed timeline for redistricting WJCC Schools was included in School Board documents Tuesday night. (Courtesy WJCC Schools)