Thursday, November 30, 2023

JCC Supes, School Board Members Discuss Fourth MS, Remain at Stalemate

Members of the WJCC School Board meet with the James City County Board of Supervisors March 22 to discuss plans for the fourth middle school. (Kirsten Petersen/ WYDaily)
Members of the WJCC School Board meet with the James City County Board of Supervisors March 22 to discuss plans for the fourth middle school. (Kirsten Petersen/ WYDaily)

Entering a work session with members of the James City County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday afternoon, Williamsburg-James City County School Board Chairman Jim Kelly (Jamestown) said his goal was to secure five votes in favor of the fourth middle school.

The hour-and-a-half discussion that followed did not result in resounding support for the project or a decision to halt plans, and it was not because Chairman Michael Hipple (Powhatan) was out sick.

Rather, Supervisor Kevin Onizuk (Jamestown), who has led the call on the board to reconsider plans, said he is still seeking affirmation there is no way to resolve overcrowding but to build a new middle school at the site of the former James Blair.

“If we were willing to say, ‘We will invest to meet your short-term capacity needs,’ could we look at real solutions at all levels for the longer term?” Onizuk said. “I’m not convinced we have that much of a capacity need and it’s that urgent that we need an entirely new school on a parcel that seems to me too small.”

Kelly, Vice Chairwoman Kyra Cook (City of Williamsburg) and Superintendent Steven Constantino attended the Board of Supervisors work session to answer questions about plans for the proposed middle school, which aims to resolve overcrowding and meet future enrollment projections by accommodating 600 students in 2018, then 900 in 2023 following a proposed expansion.

He explained the history of the former James Blair Middle School’s closure and use today as administrative offices, as well as the potential for the school’s building annex to be repurposed for a specialty program, such as International Baccalaureate.

When the WJCC School Division administration was asked to leave the JCC Government Complex’s Building D, moving into James Blair was the most affordable option, Kelly said. To turn the annex into a school, 13 to 14 teachers would be assigned teach a couple hundred students at most, not enough to support the electives or extracurricular activities offered at the three other middle schools, he said.

Unless students are redistricted to the annex, Kelly said the school division cannot guarantee enough students will be interested in enrolling in a specialty program.

“The academic people tell us that will be tough. The realist in me understands that would be tough,” Kelly said.

Enrollment projections justify the need to build the school, Kelly said, but noted that even with the fourth middle school, it may not be long before he would have to request more portable classrooms, also known as trailers.

“We have to invest in our schools to ensure this community remains a desirable place to live and work. Schools are just another cost of growth,” Kelly said.

Onizuk asked the school representatives whether expansions at the three middle schools could be considered as a way to resolve overcrowding. In 2013, the school division’s Middle School Learning & Facility Committee determined an expansion at Berkeley Middle School could cost $2.8 million.

“We need to deal with immediate needs, especially at Berkeley, but that allows us to go out and find what we really want” in terms of a solution, Onizuk said.

Kelly countered by suggesting expansions as a short-term solution would “kick the can down the road further.” Board Vice Chairman John McGlennon (Roberts) said funds would be better spent “addressing issues in a comprehensive way.”

Constantino affirmed his recommendation was to build the fourth middle school, not to expand the three middle schools in operation. Cook noted the fourth middle school has already been endorsed by both the Williamsburg City Council and the city’s Planning Commission.

“There are people, including myself, who think it is a fine plan,” Cook said.

Onizuk would later pitch a variety of alternatives, including the expansions, converting Lafayette High School into a middle school and building an elementary school at the James Blair site.

“This is a big investment,” Onizuk said. “Can we do more if we have some increments, if we do some expansions along the lines of the middle school facilities study? Before we write the check and break the ground, is it really the necessary thing to do?”

After Onizuk suggested that land could be found to build a school elsewhere, McGlennon prompted the Board to consider condemnation as an option to obtain such land, a practice the Board had previously agreed to discontinue. Onizuk and Supervisor Sue Sadler (Stonehouse) both said they believe condemnation can be avoided if a willing seller is identified.

Supervisor Ruth Larson (Berkeley) asked Onizuk if he were prepared to make a motion to “move in a different direction” regarding the fourth middle school. Earlier in the meeting Larson recalled her time considering the fourth middle school as a WJCC School Board member and confirmed with County Administrator Bryan Hill that the Board of Supervisors had approved the school in a 4-1 vote last year.

“This is unfair to approve something and come back in and give all types of different direction,” Larson said. “This is not the way I think we want to operate.”

Onizuk said the joint meeting of the Board of Supervisors, the School Board and City Council on April 22 would be the time to “hash this out.”

“It’s hard for me to spend that much money without talking it to death,” Onizuk said. “It’s a big obligation in capital costs.”

Sadler agreed, noting that as a new official she did not have the “upteenth decades of information” some of her colleagues may have.

“I want to be able to look the citizens in my district in the face and say, ‘I tried my best and asked every question you put before me,'” Sadler said.

While the Board of Supervisors are not set to cast a vote for or against the project, it will have a chance to indicate its preference when it votes to allocate funds to the school’s construction later this year, Hill said.

In an email to WYDaily, Sue Mellen, the county’s director of financial and management services, said the Board will vote to approve financing documents for the project. She said she anticipates the documents will be presented to the Board in May.

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