School board candidates address issues at forum

The Virginia Gazette

Five newcomers and an incumbent member of the Williamsburg-James City County School Board answered questions from a crowd of about 100 people Tuesday at Williamsburg Library Auditorium.

The candidate forum, sponsored by the W-JCC Parent-Teacher Association Council, touched on issues facing the district, including scheduling, funding, educational approaches and the Fourth Middle School project.

Six candidates are running for open seats in James City County: John D. Riofrio and Sandra Young are running for the Berkeley seat; James Beers and Petra Nadal are running for the Roberts seat and incumbent James Nickols and Holly Taylor are running for the Stonehouse seat.

Each candidate introduced themselves and their platform in a brief statement before the questions started. The first round were from students in an AP government class at Lafeyette High School.

Students wondered what candidates thought about class sizes, the biggest concern for local high school students, and what they would do to make sure each school is funded equally.

Young said she supports smaller classes for students in first to third grade, and a gradual increase of class size as students age. Nadal said she didn't believe class size was the issue because other countries have students in larger classes that do well.

Beers said research shows class size directly relates to student performance, and a school board must prioritize funding to keep class sizes low. Nickols said the school district has worked hard to keep student to teacher ratios low in WJCC schools because its what parents in the district want.

Riofrio said one of the concerns he thinks all students and parents share is about SOL testing, preparing for them, the stress of the tests and its results. Nadal said many students and parents she's talked to are concerned that high school students are not getting enough sleep to perform well because of their early schedules, and would like to see the district re-think start times for all students.

About funding schools equally, Taylor said school board members should look at where funds are allocated now very carefully and then come up with a solution that is equal for all. Beers said different levels of funding may appear as a disparity, but often school districts have to make hard choices, and send the money where it is most needed.

One of the questions from the audience was about the fourth middle school the district's plans to build at the James Blair site that currently houses school board offices.

Nickols said the district did the best planning it could during a recession for the increase in enrollment in WJCC schools. Taylor said the district did not make a wise choice with the location, which she says has little room for growth and could be a traffic nightmare.

Nadal and Young are also against the plan, and both said they'd like to see the district put the brakes on the current plan and look at other options as far as location and costs go.

Riofrio said he believes the district needs a new middle school, and the plans can be worked out. Beers said the horse is out of the barn and the doors closed with the current plans, which the district is contractually obligated to stick to, but said he'd like to see teachers who will be working in the new school be given more say on how it would be set up.

When asked about school security, all six candidates agreed the district's priority should be to keep students in a healthy and safe environment for learning.

The candidates stayed around for about a half hour after the forum greeting the crowd and answering other questions. Who will join the board will be decided by voters on Nov. 3.

Two current school board members, Ruth Larson, Berkeley district, and Heather Cardasco, Roberts district, are running for the county board of supervisors, and not seeking re-election to the board.

Reach Canty at (757) 345-2341.

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