Candidates hope to halt W-JCC fourth middle school

mcanty@vagazette.com

Three of the candidates running for School Board have said they're against the Williamsburg-James City County Schools' project to build a fourth middle school at the James Blair site in Williamsburg.

However, with more than 75 percent of the architectural plans finished, required permits approved and demolition scheduled to start September 2016, there may be little the three can do to stop the behemoth project, if elected to the school board.

In addition, schools officials have spent close to $1.3 million to move the project along to its current phase.

"Our timetable is such that we will be starting construction this spring and summer," said WJCC Schools facilities manager Alan Robertson of the new wing planned to be built. "In order for us to have a middle school ready for students in fall 2018, it has to be this site."

On the campaign trail, Berkeley District candidate Sandra Young, Roberts District candidate Petra Nadal and Stonehouse District candidate Holly Taylor have all said they are against the district's plan to build a new middle school and have questioned its costs and location at Ironbound and Longhill roads.

"I have a lot of issues with the middle school," said Petra Nadal, during a recent event for school board candidates at Williamsburg Regional Library. "We need to go back and look at other ideas."

Both Nadal and Young have questioned why the school's construction costs are close to $30 million when they said other districts – without identifying them by name -- have built new schools of the same size for much less.

Taylor said she is against the plans because they have been rushed, and the James Blair site is too small. "This district has a reputation for building schools of the wrong size in the wrong places," she said at the Williamsburg forum. She did not elaborate on which WJCC schools she meant.

The other candidates running for the board -- James Beers in Roberts, John Riofrio in Berkeley, and incumbent James Nickols in Stonehouse -- have expressed varying degrees of support for the project as the best option for the district right now.

The plans

In 2010, WJCC Schools moved offices into the district's oldest middle school, James Blair, when enrollment numbers showed schools officials could house middle school students in three schools -- Toano, Berkeley and Lois S. Hornsby.

The School Board then believed moving the district offices to James Blair was a temporary fix, and the division would eventually need to build a fourth middle school, current board chairman Jim Kelly said.

Plans for a fourth middle school have gone through several versions over the past few years. In its final plans, the school board voted to demolish more than 54,000 square feet of the current school and build a new wing in its place.

A study with updated enrollment numbers and a proposal for the construction of a two-phase middle school was presented to the school board in October 2014. The board approved the measure 6-1.

The first phase is projected to cost $29.6 million for a 600-student middle school. So far, the district has spent more than $1.3 million on the new school's design, concepts, and floor plans as well as land-use, water testing and traffic studies, according to the division's financial officers.

Going forward

Current WJCC School Board members have made no mention of altering the current fourth middle school plan.

Despite a recession in 2009, and during a time where most school districts have seen no real increase in their student populations, Williamsburg-James City County Schools have continued to see a rise in enrollment annually, district school superintendent Steven Constantino said.

By fall of 2018, the district will need room for students attending elementary school now and new or transfer students to the district in the form of a new middle school, school officials said on their website in the area devoted to plans for the fourth middle school.

Constantino expressed support for the James Blair plan, and presented its concepts and site plans to the board in August and September. The board approved both measures with a 7-0 vote.

"We are very committed to the direction we're going in," Kelly said Monday. The board still has to approve the construction part of the plan — a vote is expected to come before any newly elected school board members begin their terms in January.

As facilities manager, Robertson is in charge of keeping the extensive project on track and moving it from concept to building. Switching sites at this point would probably mean throwing away the designs and concepts, which were set up with specifications for the James Blair location

"You can't just assume that you can pick up these designs and move to another site," Robertson said.

Scrapping the plan would also mean the division would have to search for and buy land, then redo studies that had already been done at the James Blair site and pay for a new school building.

Concerns the three candidates raised — about the bus traffic on Ironbound and Longhill roads, locations for parking lots and athletic fields — are all things school board officials have looked at in studies, Robertson said.

"We've had to address every single one of those issues," he added. The district will continue to look at the issues concerning the school.

Costs for infrastructure changes, such as road work at the intersection of Ironbound and Longhill roads, will be handled by the city of Williamsburg, and are not included in the school district's plans for the middle school, Robertson said.

The City of Williamsburg conducted the traffic study on the area for the school and a new grocery story already under construction nearby, the facilities manager added.

Ideally, the school board would have preferred to build a completely new middle school all at once, the board's president said. However, that was not financially possible and they worked city and James City County officials to phase in the new middle school.

"This is what we can afford right now, so this is what we're doing," Kelly said. "There may be opportunities for us to save money along the way, and we will do that for the taxpayers.

Reach Canty at (757) 345-2341

Canty can be reached at (757) 345-2341.

Fourth middle school figures

Cost: an estimated $29 million for Phase I funded in capital improvement budget

Personnel costs: estimated at more than $2 million for 22 employees, that includes bus drivers, school nurse, librarian, guidance counselor, etc. (This cost doesn't include teachers.)

Total square footage: more than 152,000 square feet

Costs so far: more than $1.3 million spent on design, concepts, studies, etc.

Next phase: Construction bids and costs

Source: www.wjccschool.com

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