Opponents of fourth middle school question cost, need

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

WILLIAMSBURG — A group of citizen activists and elected officials continue to voice their opposition to the Williamsburg-James City County School Board's plan to build a new 900-student capacity middle school at the James Blair site.

The project is only months away from starting, but some Williamsburg and James City County leaders say it is unnecessary in the long run.

The school board approved the fourth middle school project in October 2014, accepting Superintendent Steve Constantino's recommendation to build the new facility at the James Blair site, which currently houses school administrative offices.

The need for the construction was based largely on projections provided by FutureThink, a consulting firm that provides enrollment projections for school districts.

Based on those projections, the district's middle schools would be above capacity by 553 students by the 2023-24 school year. The school with the greatest projected growth was Williamsburg's Berkeley Middle School.

However, FutureThink's updated projections from December 2015, which were posted on W-JCC's website, predicted there will be only 422 students. Some activists are arguing the number is likely to be even lower.

James City County Supervisor Kevin Onizuk says he feels the fourth middle school proposal needs more examination from the board of supervisors, to make sure the proposal under consideration is "absolutely necessary."

Onizuk, in a lengthy interview with the Gazette, said data he reviewed from the school division has led him to question whether enrollment projections justify the need for the school. He also questioned some of the more intricate designs associated with the school, including a glass atrium.

"We're going to be the ones stuck with this thing, paying for it for the next decade or two," Onizuk said.

He said he's always had misgivings about the proposal, but tacitly gave his support to it during his first year on the board. "I was never really comfortable with it, I allowed myself to be convinced there's no other choice," Onizuk said.

Onizuk said he wasn't endorsing any particular alternative to building the middle school. He also raised questions about the location, citing the commercial retail outlets opening nearby on the congested roadway.

David Jarman, a leading critic of the fourth middle school project who has been deeply involved as a citizen looking at county budget issues, told the school board at its Feb. 16 meeting that it needs to take a closer look at these updated numbers.

"The numbers suggest you don't even need a 600 student middle school," said Jarman. "You need some way to get 300 spots."

And Jay Everson, another vocal critic of the project, said the county is "cherrypicking" the live-birth data that supports the position of building the additional school.

In a memo to the James City County Board of Supervisors, Everson said while the number of live births in the county has steadily increased since 1999, the number of people moving into the county is in decline.

According to FutureThink's 2015 report, single-family building permits spiked in 2005, with 1,210 issued that year. By contrast, in 2014, 484 permits were issued.

Everson said the building boom in the early 2000s fueled the current growth in middle schools and the board needs to factor in the 60 percent decline in permits issued into its growth projections. He also pointed out that many of the new developments are age-restricted communities, far less likely to have middle-school-aged children.

However, Williamsburg Mayor Clyde Haulman said revisiting the issue at this juncture is unnecessary.

"I think a lot of the questions have been answered," Haulman said, regarding the growing inquiries into whether the middle school is needed. "There's no question about the need for this school, particularly given that James City County was the fourth or fifth fastest growing county in the state, and that's going to continue as sequestration ends."

And W-JCC Superintendent Steve Constantino said the overcrowding at the middle schools must be remedied, especially because of how overcrowding hurts minority students and low-income students.

School board chair Jim Kelly (Jamestown-JCC) said the most important factor to understand is that the middle schools are at capacity, and the area is continuing to grow. He also questioned the motivation behind those who are opposed to it.

"Personally, I worry that people are more worried about political ideology than the teaching and learning of our middle school students," Kelly said Monday.

Kelly said that he welcomes discussion on the issue, but the clock is ticking. He said the board will be looking at bids for construction management in March, demolition of the middle school will begin by September and the board will sign a construction contract by the end of the year.

He said there may be continued discussion on the plan at April's joint meeting with the Williamsburg City Council, James City County Board of Supervisors and the W-JCC School Board, but he didn't know if there would be enough of a consensus to revisit the entire issue.

Newly-elected school board member Sandra S. Young (Berkeley-JCC) said she strongly opposes the new school and wants to bring the project to a halt.

She said her argument against the project could be summed up in one word: Money.

"Right now, for all the hoopla about the recession is over, it is not over for a lot of people," she said, citing the $3.5 million it will cost to maintain the new building annually and the $1.5 million the district will pay in debt service each year.

But whether the board of supervisors will reconsider funding for the project or attempt to pressure the school board to change plans by withholding fundings remains to be seen.

Ruth Larson, a newly elected member of the board of supervisors from the Berkeley District, said she had not seen any data that had changed her support for the proposal. Larson, who joined the board of supervisors after serving on the school board, voted for the middle school plan when it was up for consideration by the school division.

She said she prefers letting the school board assess the need for a middle school.

"It's our job to decide what we can appropriate. If we have X amount of money, they do with it what they think is best, we cannot dictate to them what they spend that money on," Larson said. " As I have said they have not come to us and said we don't need that middle school. I'm looking to them to make the recommendation on what they feel is best for their students," Larson said.

But Larson did say she wished there had been more discussion regarding the possible site location and exploration of land available for a middle schooI. "I wish there had been a robust land discussion," Larson said. "But that building is too large to house a just an administrative building."

McKinnon can be reached at 757-298-5835; Bogues can be reached at 757-532-5246.

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