Wednesday, February 28, 2024

WJCC School Board, James City County & Williamsburg Officials Discuss Solutions to Elementary School Overcrowding

Clara Byrd Baker Elementary School is in store for a sidewalk and crosswalk project. (WYDaily/Sarah Fearing)
The Williamsburg-James City County School Board, James City County and Williamsburg officials discussed a potential new elementary school to address overcrowding issues. (WYDaily/Sarah Fearing)

WILLIAMSBURG-JAMES CITY COUNTY — The Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools (WJCC) School Board, James City County (JCC) Board of Supervisors and the Williamsburg City Council discussed solutions to elementary school overcrowding during a joint meeting on Friday, Dec. 3.

During the meeting to discuss the WJCC superintendent’s proposed Fiscal Year 23 – Fiscal Year 32 Capital Improvement Plan (CIP), the School Board emphasized the need for a new elementary school with pre-K space as a solution to elementary school overcrowding in the district.

Superintendent Olwen Herron noted that in 2018, the city council, School Board and Board of Supervisors each approved a resolution to begin the discussion about the need for additional space when the schools reached 85 percent capacity and take action at 90 percent.

Currently, the elementary schools are at 92.6 percent capacity. Each elementary school has trailers, with the exception of Matoaka Elementary School, to assist with space needs.

“We all know that our elementary schools are packed,” School Board Chairman Jim Kelly said. “The collective question we all have to answer is what is in the best interest of our students, our staff and our community?”

Kelly said that there needs to be a level of trust between the Board of Supervisors and the School Board when discussing the issue.

“We’re at a point now where we’re breaking,” he said. “We’ve got to do something.”

The School Board argued that the best long-term solution for space needs would be building a new elementary school with pre-K space within the next few years, which would cost an estimated $40 million, while the Board of Supervisors argued for adding separate wings for pre-K students, which would cost an estimated $26 million.

According to WJCC’s Chief Financial Officer Rene Ewing, there are currently 11,018 enrolled students in the division, with the division projected to be at 96 percent capacity in FY-25 and expected to increase each year to 101 percent in FY-30.

The Williamsburg City Council also argued in favor of building a new elementary school. Williamsburg Mayor Doug Pons said that building separate wings is “a short term solution that will ultimately cost us more.”

“Yes, we spend $26 million today to build the wings, but we’re going to have to come back and build more elementary space soon,” he said. “I think if we make the wrong decision today we’re ultimately going to pay more. It’s going to cost our residents and tax payers a whole lot more than we need to by pushing this down the road.”

Supervisor Ruth Larson questioned why the School Board is opposed to the separate wings.

“I am very uncomfortable with the fact that we are deciding and telling you what you need to be doing, when I would be much more comfortable as a board saying ‘This is the amount of money that we’re going to give you and you need to decide how to best do that,'” she said. “I’m a little frustrated that you’re not willing to look at a separate pre-K building, but I realize that that’s not my role.”

Herron said that the School Board has always looked at a long-term solution for needed space, but that with either option, the division will need to redistrict the elementary school students.

The three bodies did not come to an agreed-upon solution during the meeting. While the Board of Supervisors agreed that a new elementary school will be needed in the future, it believed that is too soon to make that decision now and that separate wings would be a short-term solution.

The School Board will vote to approve the CIP at the Tuesday, December 7 work session meeting. It will then go before the Board of Supervisors and the city council.

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