After a failed attempt to postpone the vote, the James City County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution Tuesday night that supports the construction of a fourth middle school and authorizes the issuance of bonds to finance the project.
The vote was not unanimous – Supervisors Kevin Onizuk (Jamestown) and Sue Sadler (Stonehouse) voted against the resolution but both supported postponing the decision until after the April 22 joint meeting with the Williamsburg City Council and the Williamsburg-James City County School Board.
Sadler said she was particularly concerned about conflicting enrollment figures for the fourth middle school, questioning the WJCC School Division’s use of “low” enrollment projections when budgeting and “most likely” projections when planning capital projects like a new school.
Both enrollment forecasts by consultancy FutureThink show the number of middle school students could grow by 50 or more annually through the 2019-2020 school year, then experience modest fluctuation through the 2025-2026 school year.
For the 2015-2016 school year, actual enrollment versus the “low” enrollment projection for WJCC schools was within 13 students or .12 percent, according to FutureThink.
“If the numbers are going to be going down, do we really need to be spending this kind of money for a temporary fix?” Sadler said.
Supervisor Ruth Larson (Berkeley) said she hopes the enrollment projections can be part of the discussion during the upcoming joint meeting.
“When we hear those numbers, we don’t want to be behind. We want to be proactive,” Larson said. “If you’re constantly trying to play catch-up, there’s a fiscal cost to that as well.”
Onizuk agreed with Sadler’s concern about the enrollment projections and said he believes there are “some other reasonable answers and alternatives that would be much more affordable.”
“I just do not feel comfortable with this large of an expenditure,” Onizuk said. “I don’t feel comfortable moving forward when there are still questions that I have.”
By passing the resolution, the board indicated it approves a lease financing plan that would allow the Economic Development Authority to issue bonds in an amount not to exceed $26,750,000.
This expenditure, which would go toward the construction, renovation, rehabilitation and equipping of a middle school, is included in County Administrator Bryan Hill’s debt reduction plan, which aims to ultimately achieve a debt-to-revenue ratio for the county that is below 10 percent, Hill said during the Feb. 23 Board meeting.
Vice Chairman John McGlennon (Roberts) said he supported the resolution and thought it would be best to vote on it Tuesday night so as to not cause a delay in the project timeline.
In response to enrollment projections, McGlennon spoke to the effect of the project on the school division’s three middle schools. According to the school division, enrollment at the schools exceeds each building’s capacity, with Berkeley’s enrollment currently at 113 percent.
“To me it seems like rational planning to talk about opening a middle school to allow all schools to be at 85 to 90 percent capacity so we have room to grow,” McGlennon said.
Board Chairman Michael Hipple (Powhatan) said the Board of Supervisors and the School Board are doing everything they can for citizens, including schoolchildren, and aspire to make the community better, not have their name on a new school building.
“I think the school is funding for children because if they don’t have a roof over their heads, how can you teach them?” Hipple said.
Speakers during public comment continue to express skepticism toward various aspects of the project, ranging from the process of selecting the former James Blair Middle School as the site to enrollment projections and a conviction that a new middle school is the best and only solution to managing the student population.
Denise Koch, a former School Board member who represented the Roberts district from 2004 through 2011, said neither the School Board nor the superintendent seeks to spend county funds “ill-advisedly.”
She said the Board of Supervisors needs to determine how it can financially support the recommendations of the School Board.
“I urge you to remember your role is not to micromanage,” Koch said. “I would hope [Board questions] would be helpful and not obstructionist and would serve to help the School Board move forward instead of staying in the same place.”
The Board voted to move up its March 22 work session to 3 p.m. to accommodate a discussion about the fourth middle school. Hill said he would invite WJCC Schools Superintendent Steven Constantino, School Board Chairman Jim Kelly and Vice Chairwoman Kyra Cook to the meeting.
Kelly attended Tuesday’s meeting and said the School Board is happy to answer any of the supervisors’ questions. He noted the price tag of the project does not include infrastructure costs, which would be unnecessary if the school is built at the James Blair site.
“We have been in these discussions for well over eight years now and we’re working closely with the supervisors and the county on all these issues,” Kelly said.
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