A community meeting on James City County Administrator Bryan Hill’s proposed fiscal 2017 operating budget turned into a discussion about facility improvements at Lafayette High School and plans to build the fourth Williamsburg-James City County middle school.
The meeting, hosted by county Board of Supervisors Chairman Michael Hipple (Powhatan) and held at Hornsby Middle School on Thursday night, was attended by 12 residents and several elected officials and county staff members.
Hill gave an overview of the budget, which was released to the public April 1, and Commonwealth’s Attorney Nate Green and Treasurer Jennifer Tomes spoke to their specific budget requests.
The question-and-answer portion began when one resident asked for the number of properties added to the county during fiscal 2016.
Every question after related to the absence of facility improvements requested by Lafayette parents and student athletes – an auxiliary gym, a walkway to the Williamsburg Indoor Sports Complex and field lighting – or how the county would finance the construction of the fourth middle school, which would replace the former James Blair Middle School.
During his overview Hill spoke to the proposed auxiliary gym without naming Lafayette as the location, referring to it as the only new facility requested by the WJCC School Division and an item the Board of Supervisors can decide to add into the budget.
In response to audience questions about the item, Hill explained the largest capital improvement in fiscal 2017 – roof and HVAC system replacements at Norge Elementary School – may have to be put off to finance the gym, which has been estimated to cost $2.45 million.
“I thought we planned very diligently,” Hill said of Norge replacements, some of which were pushed back to fiscal 2018 in WJCC Superintendent Steven Constantino’s proposed budget after the Lafayette improvements were brought to his attention.
“If this was such a big issue, I think, with some due respect, the [school division] should have told me about this last year when I said, ‘I’m about to do a tax increase,’” Hill said.
Bobby Woollum, head basketball coach at Lafayette High School, said the issue is about more than an auxiliary gym. It is also about the safety risk when student athletes leave the school’s campus to practice with their team at facilities like James Blair Middle School’s gymnasium, he said.
“When they decided to build this middle school and take the gym offline, they should have thought, ‘For the future, what is Lafayette going to do?’” Woollum said. “If it means the county has to get involved, there has to be a plan to take care of these children. We need to do something to protect these kids.”
Hill, who also coaches basketball in the community, said he respected Woollum’s perspective and could relate to it, but emphasized that a strategic plan must come before funds should be allocated for Lafayette’s facility improvements.
“If you can allow me to get the strategic plan done and get my facilities plan done, I will work my rear end off to make sure that happens,” Hill said of the gym.
Woollum’s wife, Kathy, the president of the Athletics Booster Club at Lafayette, said she understands Hill’s position but said the impending demolition of James Blair and the loss of the gymnasium makes the need to identify a solution an “urgent need that needs to be remedied now.”
“I still think we can all work together to figure this out,” Kathy Woollum said. “We need to have our community advocate on Lafayette’s behalf because we need to see this through to the finish line.”
Subsequent questions focused on how the county is paying for its share of the fourth middle school and why it is moving forward with plans to build at James Blair.
Hipple said there would be no other location for a school if plans are halted now and the county must “move forward” or otherwise find itself going “in reverse.”
“This fourth middle school [controversy] is more of a political ploy than anything else,” Hipple said. “I care about the citizens. I don’t care about the politics. That’s exactly what it is.”
Still, some residents like Wayne Vick feared the county is trying to “fit a square peg in a round hole” by opting for the James Blair site and considering no alternatives.
“We’re just asking why there are no other options being searched for,” Vick said. “We’re here because we’re trying to make this community what you want it to be as well.”
For Hipple, the low turnout to the meeting demonstrated the community’s confidence in what the county is doing, while the questions attendees asked showed their dedication to making James City County a quality community.
“We’re in a top community. That’s something we should all be proud of,” Hipple said to close the meeting. “Even though we don’t agree on everything, you all care as much as I do or you wouldn’t be here.”
Four more community budget meetings will be held and hosted by members of the Board of Supervisors. Dates and locations are listed below. All meetings start at 6:30 p.m.
- April 11 – Roberts District – Government Center Board Room, 101 Mounts Bay Road, Building F
- April 13 – Jamestown District – Legacy Hall, 4301 New Town Avenue
- April 19 – Berkeley District – Jamestown High School Auditorium, 3751 John Tyler Highway
- April 21 – Stonehouse District – James City County Library, 7770 Croaker Road