Saturday, December 2, 2023

Two JCC Supes Question Need for New Middle School, Call for Joint Meeting

A bird's-eye view of WJCC schools' proposed fourth middle school from the vantage point of Longhill Road at Ironbound Road. (Image courtesy of Waller, Todd & Sadler Architects)
A bird’s-eye view of WJCC schools’ proposed fourth middle school from the vantage point of Longhill Road at Ironbound Road. (Image courtesy of Waller, Todd & Sadler Architects)

The James City County Board of Supervisors will make sure it, the Williamsburg City Council and the WJCC School Board are all on the same page about the proposed fourth middle school “before the wrecking ball swings” during a joint meeting.

During the Board’s budget retreat Saturday morning, County Administrator Bryan Hill said he would reach out to City Manager Marvin Collins and Superintendent Steve Constantino about a time for the Council and boards to meet.

This meeting would be separate from the annual joint meeting and focus on the need for the fourth middle school and why the site of the former James Blair Middle School, located at the intersection of Longhill and Ironbound roads, is the best location available.

The call for a joint meeting came toward the end of the Board of Supervisor’s retreat Saturday morning after Kevin Onizuk (Jamestown) expressed his reluctance to move forward with the fourth middle school.

“I think we need to talk about this again. I was barely on board with the fourth middle school plan,” Onizuk said. “I’m still not sure I like this. The more we go down this road, I’m liking it less and less.”

Onizuk’s call to review the plan comes more than a year after the Board of Supervisors approved the two-phase plan for a 950-seat middle school on a 4-1 vote. Onizuk, along with Supervisor Michael Hipple (Powhatan), Supervisor John McGlennon (Roberts) and former Supervisor Mary Jones (Berkeley), voted in favor; former Supervisor Jim Kennedy (Stonehouse), who acknowledged the need for a new middle school, cast the lone vote against because he questioned whether the James Blair site would be big enough.

Construction of phase one of the school, which would be built to accommodate 600 students, is budgeted for $23.6 million in the school division’s Fiscal Year 2016 Capital Improvements Program budget.

Onizuk said he has seen enrollment projections that suggest there may not be “the same urgency to build” a fourth middle school and suggested renovations or expansions at Berkeley Middle School as an alternative.

“I’m worried that this facilities process, and looking into new schools, is going to push us into situations we can’t afford,” Onizuk said.

Sue Sadler (Stonehouse) agreed with Onizuk’s recommendation to revisit the proposal and whether the county’s revenue is being focused “in the right place.”

“My concern is that we place people and students above buildings,” Sadler said. “If we’re going to be spending all of this money and we’re already in a shortfall, I want to make sure we’re allocating our money properly.”

Hipple said he agreed a joint meeting would be helpful to review “what we have and what we don’t have” with the school board.

“I would like to know all the numbers out there and go over those, so that might be something we can set up,” Hipple said.

Supervisor Ruth Larson (Berkeley), a longtime School Board member elected to the Board of Supervisors in November, said she would caution against using “a layperson’s” enrollment projections and said it takes more than “adding a wing” to solve capacity problems, as hallways and core areas need to be the right size.

“I think putting students first here is not crowding students into a school that may not necessarily be able to handle just adding on,” Larson said.

McGlennon added that, although he did not believe anyone was “100 percent satisfied” with the board’s decisions pertaining to the fourth middle school, members participated in a thorough discussion on the issue and “many other ideas” have been considered.

“I think we have to assume that, with the direction we had all provided, there are things in place and there would have to be a pretty major problem or a clear need to change direction,” McGlennon said.

County Administrator Bryan Hill emphasized the county has the money budgeted to open the fourth middle school in fiscal 2019 and said “exponentially smoothing” debt will enable the county to cover new school expenditures.

“If you’re going to look at stopping or discussing the school, we have to do it ASAP because in July that wrecking ball is coming to knock out a wall and I don’t think we can stop it after a period of time,” Hill said.

The project’s progress has kept with the timeline outlined by Michael Hall, president of educational facility planning company Fanning Howey, during the September School Board meeting. The middle school’s special use permit was approved by the Williamsburg City Council earlier this month and the final site plan could be approved by the City’s Planning Commission in mid-March.

Hall also debuted a computer-generated, bird’s-eye view of the proposed middle school during the Jan. 19 School Board meeting.

Demolition of the existing school building is set for August and construction could begin in September. Phase one is set to open in September 2018.

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