Revisiting the 4th Middle School Project

The Virginia Gazette

At the James City County Board of Supervisors Budget Retreat on Jan. 23, there was a discussion of the need for a joint meeting to finalize plans for proceeding on the 4th middle school project at the James Blair site. Scheduling of this joint meeting is pending.

I believe that this project should be revisited, if only because conditions have changed materially since the project was conceptually approved in November 2014, and phase 1 was included in the CIPs for the City, County and School Board in their respective FY 2016 Budgets. There are three material changes that should be discussed:

1. Do the latest student enrollment projections still justify building a new, two phase 950 student 4th middle school?

2. Have economic conditions changed to question the affordability of the project?

3. Has the architectural design changed in a way that merits further discussion?

Let's look at each of these areas.

Enrollment projections

In November 2014 RRMM Architects presented a proposal to construct a two phase middle school at a capital cost of $61 million, using a 3% inflation factor (Note: the County Board of Supervisors approved this plan by a 4-1 vote at its work session later in that month). This proposal was based on student enrollment projections from a FutureThink November 2013 report citing a capacity shortfall of 553 students by FY 2024. Most of this student growth was to occur in the city and mid­ county. This was FutureThink's Most Likely projection.

The latest FutureThink report from November 2015 revises this capacity shortfall down to 422 by FY 2024 and 246 students by FY 2019 when the 600 student Phase 1 facility is scheduled to open. At the same time, this report cites only a 161 student shortfall by FY 2024 using the Low projection, and a 167 student shortfall in FY 2019. This reflects the difference between an annual student enrollment increase of 1.4% per year under the Most Likely scenario and 0.4% per year increase under the Low scenario.

Interestingly, the Schools Division is now using the Low Projection scenario in creating its latest Five Year Budget Projections (FY 2017-2020) contained in its FY 2016 Final Budget. So, perhaps the Low

Projection scenario is more appropriate for capacity planning issues.

Economic conditions

The School Division's Five Year Projections cite a $15.3 million unfunded budget gap for the FY 2017-2020 period. This structural budget deficit may only worsen based on release of the Superintendent's Budget for FY 2017, which highlights additional state-mandated VRS contributions and flat state revenues. Further, the county's own five year revenue projections limit their contributions to the School Division to 2.5% per year.

The incremental annual cost from opening Phase 1 of James Blair in FY 2019 is $5.2 million, based on County projections. Of that, $3 million is for incremental operating costs and $2.2 million for annual debt service on county borrowings. This incremental $5.2 million is being accommodated via utilization of debt service rolloff on school issued debt. This approach ignores other priorities for capital spending over the next decade on county projects that reduce significantly the availability of funds for other school projects included in the School Division's approved 10 Year CIP- such projects as high school expansion in FY 2022, a new central office in FY 2023, and Phase 2 of James Blair Middle School in FY 2025 (Note: The School Division's 10 Year CIP costs out Phase 2 at an incremental $17 million, so total cost of James Blair is $49 million, not the earlier figure of$61 million estimated in November 2014).

One can argue that committing $32 million ($28. 5 million from the County) to the Phase 1 James Blair project, before factoring in the county's other capital spending requirements over the coming decade, is premature. At the least, it puts at risk funding capability for other county and school projects. Better perhaps to defer on Phase 1 of James Blair until the County completes Phase 3 of its Strategic Plan this summer. Phase 3 will identify core goals and action Items for at least the next 10 years (and prospectively for the next 20 years). Core initiatives will be prioritized and costed out. Importantly, the Board of Supervisors agreed at its last work session to include K-12 Education as one of its five priority areas in setting those goals and action items.

Architectural design

When this project was discussed in Novemnber 2014, the idea was to accommodate key ingredients for a "21st century education." But no details were offered at the time. It was only as the architectural work proceeded during this past summer and autumn that plans to build an experimental STEM Academy on the site became clear. The model for this is the Colonel Smith Middle School in Fort Huachuca, Arizona, designed for 600 students (current enrollment 330 students), completed in June 2012, designed by the same architects working on James Blair.

During the architect's presentations over the last few months, School Board members asked for confirmation that this new school concept was thoroughly vetted with the teacher community, and that an instructional plan was in place to execute the new teaching methodologies implicit in this new school. It is unclear that this was done. Nor, even if input was sought and received, whether this was sufficient to justify adoption of this particular architectural design. Best practices suggest curriculum specifics, training of the teacher community, and parental and community vetting be done prior to adoption of such major architectural change. It is noteworthy that the architect has been unable to identify a successful implementation of this new design paradigm in any school system east of the Mississippi River.

Conclusion

An honest, independent assessment of the risks and opportunities of proceeding immediately on Phase 1 of the James Blair project would likely result in a decision to defer this project for at least a year until this "relock" is completed.

Jarman, of James City County, a retired banker, has a B.A. in Economics from Trinity College, in Hartford Conn., and an M.B.A in Banking and Finance from Wharton. From 2008 to 2012 he was a member of the James City County Budget Advisor's Group, a citizen led group to monitor school finances.

Copyright © 2017, The Virginia Gazette