Five years brought change to W-JCC schools

Ryan McKinnon
Contact Reporterjmckinnon@vagazette.com

WILLIAMSBURG — In December 2010, the Williamsburg James-City County School board hired Steve Constantino as the district's fourth superintendent in 10 years.

When he arrived, the district was feeling the full effects of the recession: funding was down, crowding at middle schools was becoming an issue, and W-JCC had not made adequate yearly progress in the 2009-10 school year under the No Child Left Behind Act.

Former school board member and current James City County Supervisor Ruth Larson remembers Constantino impressing the board during his interview.

"When he first sat down to meet with us it was obvious he had done his homework," Larson said. "He had really looked down in the data of the division and came in with ideas of what he could do to prop us up in areas where we needed propping up."

Not only had Constantino done his homework, he also brought with him an impressive resume.

He was the deputy superintendent of the 107,000-student Cobb County district outside of Atlanta and had written three books on how to strengthen parental involvement in education. He had been principal of Stonewall Jackson High School in Manassas when it was named one of Time Magazine's five Schools of the Year in 2001. The Washington Post had profiled his efforts toward parental outreach.

As he exits W-JCC to become the chief academic officer/assistant superintendent for instruction with the state Department of Education, the Gazette is taking a look at the school district he is leaving behind.

Today, we take a look at how Constantino managed the district's money and facilities. On Saturday we will look at the progress the district made academically during his time here.

Money

Constantino arrived as districts across the country struggled to recover from the recession.

At Constantino's first board meeting on Feb. 1, 2011, Williamsburg-James City County Education Association President Karen Armistead told the new superintendent that teacher morale was at an all-time low due to low compensation, according to the meeting's minutes.

Constantino's first budget was roughly $110.6 million for fiscal year 2011-12. Over five years the budget increased 16 percent to $128.3 million.

But during his tenure, not much has changed regarding teacher salaries. The average W-JCC teacher earned $51,923 in 2011. That figure was budgeted to increase in 2016 to $53,123, according to data from the state Department of Education.

That equates to a 2 percent raise over five-and-a-half years.

Teachers in York and Newport News have received raises of 8 and 9 percent respectively since 2011. Statewide, the average teacher salary increased 9 percent during that same period, according to DOE data.

While the budgeted average 2016 salary of $53,123 for W-JCC teachers is higher than their peers in York ($52,531) and Newport News ($51,148), those localities are catching up.

The W-JCC teachers are handling more students at the same time. Enrollment in the district increased 6 percent during Constantino's tenure, while the number of instructional staff increased by 1 percent.

If instructional staffing levels had remained consistent with 2011 levels, there would be approximately 61 additional instructional staff working in the schools.

Constantino's salary increased 9 percent during the same time. He was hired at a base salary of $170,000 in December 2010 and he received a $17,368 raise to $187,368 when his contract was renewed in June 2015.

Budget time continues to bring out teachers voicing frustration over tepid wage increases.

"Every month when I see that I have less money than last year, I can't help but ask myself: why am I here? I know why I'm a teacher, it's for the students. The real question is why am I here in Williamsburg? Why not be a teacher somewhere else?" said Lauren Tappan, a third-grade teacher at D.J. Montague Elementary School, at a board meeting on March 1.

School Board member Mary Minor said the plateaued teacher salaries in W-JCC are partly due to the circumstances Constantino inherited: the district had grown rapidly and building new schools and hiring new teachers stretched the board's ability to give pay raises.

And, school systems across the state have been forced to do more with less since 2010.

A September 2015 study by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission reported that between 2009 and 2015 school divisions "reduced per-student spending on instruction through a combination of employing fewer teachers per student, limiting salary growth, and requiring teachers to pay a higher percentage of health insurance and retirement benefit costs."

When it comes to the portion of the budget used for student instruction, Constantino has kept W-JCC on pace with its counterparts.

For the 2015-16 school year, 65.1 percent of the W-JCC budget went toward student instruction, according to the DOE's Virginia School Report Card. York spent 64.4 percent and Newport News spent 64.0 percent.

The dollar amount the district spends per student has slightly decreased, while the state average has slightly increased.

In 2011, the district spent $10,916 per student. At that point, the state average cost per student was $10,793.

In 2014, the district spent $10,794 per student, while the state average was $11,242, according to the most recent Superintendent's Annual Report.

WJCC Schools Foundation

When Constantino arrived, W-JCC lagged behind many other districts by not supporting a nonprofit foundation.

Last fall, the district launched the WJCC Schools Foundation to raise money and award grants to teachers in the district.

The foundation awarded more than $28,000 in grants to teachers in January.

As a result of the new foundation, teachers bought iPads for class, handed out books to lower-income students during summer break, used 3-D printers for geometry modeling and got creative with instruction in numerous ways.

The foundation is accepting grant applications for the upcoming school year. Applications are due by Oct. 17. See wjccschoolsfoundation.org for more information.

Facilities

What Constantino is likely to be most remembered for is the new middle school being built at the James Blair administrative site.

This summer, demolition began and construction is set to begin in the fall. The school will look far different from the middle schools W-JCC students currently attend. Glass walls, movable furniture and a focus on technology are the cornerstones of the new design.

When Constantino arrived, all three middle schools were anticipated to be at or near capacity, and the debate over how to address the issue had begun.

In March 2012, Constantino first raised the idea of building a new school on the James Blair site for $33.6 million. Later that year, a feasibility study revealed it would cost roughly as much to renovate the 60-year-old building as it would to demolish it and build a new school there.

The prospect of a new school faced opposition from several fronts.

Budget hawks wanted the schools to increase class sizes, eliminate non-core programs and consolidate storage in order to avoid having to build a new school. Support for building the school cost long-time board member Jim Nickols his seat in 2015. Holly Taylor won on a reform agenda that included opposition to the fourth middle school.

Constantino's vision for a 21st-century facility at James Blair survived four years of political wrangling, including an attempt by a local developer to persuade Constantino and a handful of board members to enter into a public-private partnership to build the facility at a 180-acre parcel in the county.

This spring the project's financing crossed the final hurdle when the James City County supervisors, Economic Development Authority and W-JCC School Board all approved the sale of $26.8 million in bonds to finance the first phase of the project

The construction plan will be split into two phases. In phase one, school administrators will share the space with a 600-student middle school slated to open in 2018. Once the expected expansion is necessary, the central office would move and the school would be added onto to accommodate an additional 300 students.

Facilities report

Last year, the district hired consultants Faithful+Gould, Inc. to analyze the facilities in the district.

The firm issued its report in February. It rated the overall condition of the 15 schools and one operations building in the district as excellent, and it credited the district with being efficient with funding and taking care of the facilities.

However, the report also cautioned that the next decade could bring increased challenges to the district if staffing levels in the maintenance department are not addressed.

During Constantino's tenure, the facility management office has been severely understaffed, the report found. As a result, the district was only doing reactive maintenance and had not developed a comprehensive preventative maintenance program.

According to the report, the district employs 15 full-time maintenance employees, excluding administrative and support staff. Faithful+Gould reported a portfolio the size of W-JCC's would require at least 30 full-time employees, industry benchmarks recommend 40.

The report stated that, as it is unlikely the maintenance department will get an additional 15 to 25 employees, the district needed to find a solution to prevent getting into a cycle where all maintenance is reactionary.

"With previous clients, it has been seen that once this cycle begins, it is hard to stop," the report states.

Parity

Equality — or a lack of equality — among school facilities and programs is a constant source of tension for superintendents. Boosters, PTA members and concerned parents can point to something at another school and demand equal treatment.

During the final year of Constantino's tenure, battles over parity between the schools focused on a specialty program at Warhill High School and the facilities at Lafayette High School.

Last year, Warhill High School received a $50,000 innovative-planning grant from the state to develop a program for 100 freshmen prioritizing hands-on, project-based learning over standardized tests.

The grant drew the ire of some Lafayette advocates, who worried Warhill would poach the other schools' best and brightest scholars and athletes and wanted to know why Warhill alone was awarded the grant.

Constantino was able to silence his critics in July when W-JCC became the only district in the state to win innovative planning grants two years in a row. This summer the state DOE announced Lafayette and Jamestown would each receive $50,000 grants to develop their own pilot programs.

The largest debate over equality among the schools revolved around the facilities at Lafayette.

An increasingly organized and vocal group of Lafayette parent advocates began lobbying the district to address a lack of athletic facilities at the school, which has the highest percentage of minority students and students who receive reduced price-lunch of the three high schools.

The parents documented the history of attempts to get an auxiliary gym built at Lafayette, a project that had been in and out of the school district's capital improvement plan for years dating back to before Constantino's arrival.

In December the parents successfully pressured Constantino and board members to revise the district's capital improvement plan at the last minute to include a new gym and a walkway from Lafayette to the Warhill Indoor Sports Complex.

The James City Board of Supervisors approved funding for the gym in May, but it was too little too late for longtime Lafayette Athletic Director Dan Barner, who announced his resignation in April.

Barner said Lafayette had been disregarded for too long by Constantino's administration. He said he wouldn't believe the auxiliary gym was being built until he saw the construction equipment.

McKinnon can be reached at 757-345-2341.

Coming Saturday

The Gazette will look at academic progress, strategic planning, alternative education, parental engagement and career and technical education during Constantino's tenure.

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