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2016 in Review: A look back at school news

In the last past year, Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools have weather significant changes.

A superintendent resigned, and an elementary school name was ordered changed. School Board members tossed some dirt with golden shovels to mark the beginning of the fourth middle school. One hundred freshmen took a chance on non-traditional high school learning with the Pathways Program at Warhill.

The four biggest stories from 2016 include:

Board member's position questioned

A school board member's husband was arrested on federal child pornography charges in November, throwing the board into tumult and spurring calls — from fellow board members and the public — for her resignation.

Sandra Young has said she knew about her husband viewing child pornography as early as December 2015, just after she was elected to fill the board's Berkeley District seat.

Board Chairman Jim Kelly asked Young to resign Nov. 30 with the support of five other board members. He said the request was due to a perceived lack of judgment on Sandra Young's part by bringing her husband, Charles Young, to school functions after she was aware of his alleged viewing child pornography.

Kelly has also brought up concerns about the charges becoming a distraction from the board's work.

Sandra Young has said she will not resign. She has not been charged with a crime.

The board doesn't have the power to force her resignation, only voters in Berkeley district can create a petition and bring the matter before a judge.

Sandra Young said at the Dec. 13 meeting that she allowed her husband to attend school events under her "supervision." Community members spoke at the meeting, and otherwise emailed, called and expressed in-person to board members their opinions on the matter — some saying she should stay while many others requested her resignation.

A name change

A division superintendent more than 50 years ago left his mark on WJCC schools with an elementary school named in his honor. But some spoke up earlier this year saying Rawls Byrd's legacy wasn't a positive one.

Advocates said Byrd actively worked against integration by threatening families of students who applied to the area's all-white high schools. Lafayette Jones was one of those students, and he spoke at an April board meeting encouraging board members to change the name.

The advocates were successful. The School Board voted to change the name in May and a survey went out last month for voting on possible options. The School Board will have the final say, and will presented with the top three names at a board meeting early in 2017.

The name should be in place for the first day of school in September 2017.

Superintendent moves up and out

WJCC Superintendent Steve Constantino surprised the crowd at a July 12 School Board meeting when he announced his resignation.

Constantino had served the division since 2011, and left to take a job with the state's Department of Education serving as chief academic officer for instruction and assistant superintendent for instruction.

Then-deputy WJCC superintendent Olwen Herron has filled the position since Constantino's resignation became official on Aug. 15. The School Board is tasked with finding a replacement by early February, a job they passed on to a search firm hired in October for $16,900.

The board decided to keep the search entirely confidential, and will announce the next superintendent in February.

Facilities under review

School facilities — old, new and non-existent — popped up in discussions all over the division, from a new building at the Central Office to a gym and walkway at Lafayette High School, concerns included cost and equity.

The fourth middle school, at the James Blair site, was given the green light early this year, a design was approved in the summer and a contract awarded by September. Oyster Point Construction won the $21.8 million contract and broke ground on the project early October.

The school was designed around the concept of 21st-century learning and will include glass walls and mobile lockers and will emphasize technology. It is expected to open to students by September 2018.

A little over three miles away, debates about equity came into play at Lafayette High School.

Advocates for Lafayette raised the issue of equity in facilities at the beginning of the year, highlighting Lafayette's lack of field lighting and an auxiliary practice gym. The capital project was approved and a Virginia Beach-based architect firm, HBA, was selected to design the project, after the first contract with the firm to be canceled.

The firm estimated a $2.5 million price tag on the project, which went up by a nearly $500,000 in October because of design complexities. A final design for the gym is expected to be presented to the School Board in January.

Another Lafayette project that didn't make the cut was a walkway from the school to the Warhill Sports Complex. Students had been using a trail through the swamp that was deemed dangerous by interim superintendent Olwen Herron and closed in October.

Though the swamp is the quickest, most direct path to the complex, students otherwise must walk 1.5 miles via Longhill Road or take a bus. Herron ultimately removed the walkway from the division's capital improvement plan, citing concerns of student safety.

Williams can be reached by phone at 757-345-2341.

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