Emails illuminate disagreement over 4th middle school

and Contact Reporterjmckinnon@vagazette.com abogues@vagazette.com

WILLIAMSBURG — Next Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors will sit down with school division officials to discuss the fourth middle school project at James Blair.

The Board of Supervisors will meet with Superintendent Steven M. Constantino, School Board Chairman Jim Kelly and Vice Chair Kyra Cook to discuss funding the project, and the county board will get a chance to ask school officials questions about the need for the building.

The first phase of the project is budgeted to cost $26 million and will build a 600-student capacity school. Phase two will add space for 300 more students, and could cost between $21 and $29 million.

Behind the scenes, the project has been an active topic of discussion in emails between officials in the county, School Board and the city of Williamsburg.

In honor of Sunshine Week – an annual celebration of the public's access to government documents – the Virginia Gazette asked James City County, the city of Williamsburg and W-JCC Schools for all emails discussing the fourth middle school in January and February.

The Freedom of Information Act request returned more than 1,000 pages of emails. The majority of the emails were communication among school staff moving the project forward. These included cost estimates, conversations about what features to include in the new building and back-and-forth between contractors and school operations staff.

A handful of the emails revealed the vocal opposition of a small group of citizens concerned with the cost and scope of the project. Citizen activists David Jarman and Jay Everson and developer Chris Henderson account for the majority of these emails written to elected officials about the project.

Meanwhile, the majority of members on the City Council, Board of Supervisors, and School Board remain in favor of the project.

On the Board of Supervisors, John McGlennon, Ruth Larson and Chairman Michael Hipple have indicated the project should go forward, while Supervisors Kevin Onizuk and Sue Sadler have raised questions about its necessity.

On the seven member School Board, newcomers Holly Taylor and Sandra Young won elections partly based on their opposition to the new middle school. But there seems to be little support from other members for jettisoning the approved project, which has been vigorously defended by Kelly and Cook.

A majority of Williamsburg City Council has expressed support for the plan, according to Councilman Scott Foster. "We've had plenty of discussions, the general sentiment is in favor of it," Foster said, referring to the council. He said he has read complaints from some of the citizen detractors of the plan, but he trusts the school division's guidance on the matter.

"I do appreciate their input, the data they're using is not the best data available. So I have to defer to the school administration's information."

Onizuk, Sadler push for more information

On the Board of Supervisors, Supervisors Kevin Onizuk and Sue Sadler have raised concerns about the middle school plan since the county's budget retreat on a snowy Saturday morning in late January.

Board members have received or sent several hundred emails regarding the middle school project since early January.

Sadler told Onizuk in an email that she was getting "a lot of feedback from citizens who are appreciative of us revisiting James Blair," in an email sent on Jan. 25.

She also thanked Jarman for his input on the middle school, in an email sent on Jan. 27. "Thank you for contacting me and for your willingness to provide such detailed and helpful information. I am currently reading and studying over this, and appreciate the offer to communicate with you. We may need to consider planning a meeting sometime in the near future, along with a few others," Sadler said.

"We personally do not support converting James Blair back into a fourth middle school. A significant investment was made to transform that building into administrative space and it should function in that capacity," Angela and R. Dean Whitehead wrote to Onizuk, in an email dated Jan. 26.

Onizuk responded to the couple.

"I agree the "4th middle school" proposal does need some additional discussion and detail before we finalize plans and release funds to the W-JCC Schools," Onizuk wrote in the email. Onizuk previously voted for the plan when he joined the board, but said he felt rushed. Now, he says it needs more consideration.

"We on the Board of Supervisors have a fiscal responsibility to JCC tax payers to ensure we are getting value for every dollar spent, and a responsibility to W-JCC students to ensure funds are being spent where it will have the maximum benefit for their education."

Local real estate developer Chris Henderson has also pushed to the board to abandon the James Blair project. Henderson floated his own proposal to build a middle school at an alternative site in 2014, but it never received strong consideration.

Henderson has been a leading critic of the James Blair site.

"We need to abandon the 4th Middle at Blair and find a better, more cost¿effective solution," Henderson wrote in an email to the Board of Supervisors on Jan. 26. "The site is too small and the building costs too much. Keep James Blair as the Administration Building and use the Annex for a magnet program."

Onizuk responded to Henderson, and also apologized for the way Onizuk said Henderson was treated when he pitched an alternative to the James Blair project.

"I was very disappointed in how your proposal was handled by the WJCC Schools (and JCC) and apologize for how you have been treated," Onizuk wrote in a Monday, Jan. 25 email, after Henderson emailed him upset about his proposal's treatment by the county and school division.

Onizuk never voiced support for Henderson's plan, only saying it deserved consideration.

"Regardless of if the proposal would/could have been approved, you should have been applauded for your suggestion and help in providing an alternative. Instead you were chastised and all of us involved in supporting the idea were negatively portrayed by some members of the School Board, some members of the BOS, and most significantly by the Virginia Gazette," Onizuk wrote.

"He tried to put something out there, whether it was not a good idea it never got vetted," Onizuk said. "Someone was very intent on making that proposal go away. Any citizen, when they put something forward they've invested time in, they should at least have a courteous thank you," Onizuk told the Gazette Monday.

Onizuk has stressed he has not endorsed any particular alternative to the James Blair plan, but said he thinks the project merits more discussion.

Still, Onizuk said it's likely the school will be built.

"It appears there are three votes on our board in favor of moving forward," Onizuk told the Gazette, in a phone interview Monday.

"Ultimately this may be a moot point. That's certainly not going to stop me from asking for us to pause and make sure we're doing the right thing. But it appears we've got the three votes, unless something significant changes. It appears the majority of our board, the City Council and School Board are in favor of the fourth middle school option."

'21st century design'

Some opponents to the fourth middle school have questioned elements of the "21st century" design being used.

In a presentation to the School Board on Aug. 18, Michael Hall, an educational facilities planner, showed pictures of the planned facility. Hall said the building would be designed for "digital natives," meaning children who have grown up in the Internet age. Hill showed pictures from a school in Arizona of students spread throughout a large room on couches and rolling chairs, all holding laptops, tablets or cell phones.

Opponents to the middle school have raised concerns about this non-traditional vision.

In an email from Jan. 21, Jay Everson questioned Julie Hummel, Jim Beers and Holly Taylor about the basis for W-JCC's decision to go with this model.

"Open floor plan, movable walls, movable furniture, optimal use of technology … all designed by your friendly architects and reinforced by five-hour discussion by superintendent with school principal in Arizona, a school of 350 students," Everson wrote. "No where do I see the influence of our local teachers."

And David Jarman, one of the most prolific emailers and citizen-comment-period speakers in opposition to the project, raised several questions about "21st century" design in a Jan. 27 email to School Board Vice-Chair Kyra Cook (Williamsburg) and Sandy Young (Berkeley).

Jarman wrote: "What is 21st century education? What are curriculum changes required to operate in this new environment? How do we train teachers to operate in new environment? At what additional cost?"

Just a few days earlier, Cook had emailed back and forth with Constantino, discussing the need for an open-mind approach toward the 21st century design.

Cook said opponents of the project had gotten bogged down in minutiae, wanting to know exactly how a "21st century" style building could impact learning.

"The most important thing is the 'why,' but nay-sayers and politicians want to know 'how.' I see possibilities. They see potentially broken promises or irresponsible decision making. I get it. But I disagree with it," Cook wrote.

Cook said the goal of the design is to create a space that allows teachers flexibility, and it isn't the role of the board or the public to determine exactly how to best use the space. She said she wants the design to be "intentionally nebulous to some extent – but not in an irresponsible way."

In Cook's view, opponents – and even supporters – of the project were asking questions that could only be answered by the teachers who would be using the space.

"Even those who support the new JB plans don't 'get' it. I keep saying that they're not supposed to 'get it.' They are not educators," she wrote.

Uncomfortable Conversations

The emails also reveal the awkward position non-elected officials sometimes find themselves in when dealing with a highly politicized issue.

Sadler, who has raised issues with the project, emailed James City County Administrator Bryan Hill on Jan. 28, trying to set up a meeting for Hill to hear from a cadre of opponents to the project.

"I would recommend that we meet with these highly credentialed gentlemen asap," Sadler wrote.

Hill, who answers to the Board of Supervisors, replied saying he would meet with the group if he was instructed by the Board of Supervisors. When Sadler persisted and wanted to include School Board members in the meeting as well, Hill reached out to Constantino.

"Brother can you help me out here!" Hill wrote.

Constantino dismissed Sadler's idea for the meeting, writing "I don't see SB acquiescing to this. Debating the same thing over and over is counterproductive in my opinion."

Later in the email chain, when discussing a time for a meeting to further discuss the project, Hill wrote: "Thursday. 6pm then you and I can go drink."

Constantino told Hill, "You buy," to which Hill replied: "Yes I will buy:-)."

McKinnon can be reached at 757-345-2341; Bogues can be reached at 757-345-2346.

If you go

The work session to discuss the James Blair middle school project will be held on March 22 at 101 Mounts Bay Road, Suite F, located inside the James City County Government Center. It begins at 3 p.m. and is open to the public. It will also be livestreamed at jamescitycountyva.gov

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