W-JCC School Board candidates - Berkeley district

The Virginia Gazette

Two people new to elected offices, William and Mary professor John Riofrio and retired teacher Sandra Young, are vying for the Williamsburg-James City County School Board seat representing the Berkeley District.

The seat was vacated by Ruth Larson, who is running for James City County Board of Supervisors.

Riofrio is an assistant professor of Hispanic Studies at the Williamsburg university with two decades of teaching experience. The married father of four said he became interested in running for the school board while watching his children go through W-JCC schools.

"I think we have a very good school district, but it can always be better," Riofrio said. "I want to make sure students are not just learning to the test, but developing a joy of learning."

Young is a mother of seven and retired teacher from the Department of Defense Dependent Schools who taught for more than three decades. She said she loves children, and "I'm very concerned about what's happening in the educational system right now.

"We need to develop good policies to protect students and teachers," Young added.

In recent meetings with the Gazette's editorial board, Riofrio and Young answered questions and discussed Williamsburg-James City County Schools issues, such school funding, Standards of Learning tests and a controversial proposal to build a more than $20 million middle school at the James Blair Middle School site in Williamsburg.

SOLs

Riofrio: SOLs are absolutely a real problem, he said. "At William and Mary, I teach some of the brightest students, but high school hasn't taught them to be critical thinkers," RioFrio said. "Some look at learning as an obligation, and that's sad. We should want to make learning real and practical and something that creates joy and a desire to keep learning." Teaching is a hard position, he said, and one that has been made harder with the assessment tests.

The school system also has to make policies that preserve arts classes and recess, which help students.

Young: "All of the focus on SOLs takes all the joy out of learning." As a former teacher, Young says she sees children come out of school with "gaps" in their learning because they're only being taught items needed for SOL tests.

"We need to get back to that, reading, writing and other basics."The focus of school has shifted from where it should be to these tests, Young said.

Budget

Riofrio: I have to make myself more educated on the budget, RioFrio said. He says he understands school district have to make hard choices about funding, and drop classes like recess and fine arts programs. "Fine arts is about joy. We have to stand up for arts and the spirit of education."

Young: During her interview, Young guessed the school budget was $125 million (The district's total budget is less than that, at roughly $121 million). "I know it's a lot of money," Young said. "This is the most expensively funded school (district) in this area." She said the country is still in a recession and "It's not just our school district, the whole country is suffering right now." 

Fourth middle school

Riofrio: Enrollment continues to go up in the division, so another middle school is needed, he said. Riofrio said he'd like to view the project budget, and work with school officials and contractors to find the best prices for the new school and all its components. The school board also has to look at overall spending and prioritize spending on students and instructional programs.

Young: "We're not prioritizing where money goes in the school budget, and I don't know if this fourth middle school should be a priority," Young said. With a block schedule, Young said, some classrooms are empty for 90 minutes at a time. As a board member, Young "would push the district to use those empty classrooms before saddling the district with a new, pricey school that doesn't have space to grow," she said.

Reach Canty at (757) 345-2341.

Copyright © 2017, The Virginia Gazette