WILLIAMSBURG — The official beginning of construction on the new middle school at the James Blair site was marked by six officials wearing hard hats and digging golden shovels into the ground Tuesday, sweating in the October sun.
Williamsburg-James City County school board chairman Jim Kelly joined acting superintendent Olwen Herron, city and county officials as well as Waller, Todd and Sadler Architects President Howard Collins and President of Oyster Point Construction Hugh Riley to commence the start of the two-year project.
"It's an exciting day for W-JCC schools, and an exciting day for James City County and the City of Williamsburg's communities," Kelly said. "James Blair Middle School will provide our students with a 21st-century building to match the 21st-century instruction that will occur in each and every classroom."
Kelly said the school will meet the division's current and future enrollment needs.
According to the state Department of Education and W-JCC officials, Berkeley Middle School is at 113 percent capacity, Toano Middle School is at 102 percent capacity and Lois Hornsby Middle School is at 98 percent capacity.
James City County Board of Supervisors Chairman Michael Hipple spoke next, followed by Williamsburg Mayor Paul Freiling. Both men commented on the collaboration between the city and the county for the project.
Hipple said the school system attracts people to the city and county, and graduating capable students who stay in the community is important.
Freiling added to that thought.
"The new James Blair Middle School will serve this community well, but perhaps more importantly, more directly, it will serve the students and teachers of our school system for years to come," Freiling said. "Good public education is great economic development. We want our community to be strong going forward, there's no better indicator than the health of our public education."
Herron closed out the ceremony noting that before the school opens, attendance districts will be redrawn and teachers will be prepared for the 21st-century building with sliding walls and large collaboration spaces.
Riley said he was confident the project would be on time and on budget. According to the school district, construction is anticipated to finish in June 2018, in time for the 2018-19 school year.
Years of discussion
Debate on the school dates back to 2008, when the school board began reviewing capacity figures and discussing opening a new middle school.
In 2009, the board voted to close James Blair as a middle school and convert it to district administration offices and class space for Academy for Life and Learning, the district's alternative education program at the time.
James Blair closed in June 2010 and Lois Hornsby Middle School opened in September of that year. The board anticipated reopening James Blair as a school in 2014-15 as enrollment numbers increased.
According to board minutes from July 21, 2009, the anticipated cost to convert James Blair from administrative offices back to a school was $640,000.
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.
Much of Constantino's tenure was spent gaining support on the construction of a new 21st-century middle school at the James Blair site, rather than converting the administrative offices back into classroom space.
In July, Constantino left W-JCC schools to take a position with the state Department of Education where he serves as the Chief Academic Officer for Instruction/Assistant Superintendent for Instruction.
The first phase of the middle school is estimated to cost roughly $26 million.
Questions as to the necessity and the multi-million price tag led to a years-long public debate over the construction, with opponents to the project analyzing how the school used space and challenging the district's capacity figures.
In March, Supervisors Kevin Onizuk and Sue Sadler voiced opposition to the project. Sadler said she had seen enrollment projections that indicate the school population may peak and begin dropping.
James City supervisors authorized the county to borrow roughly $26 million to fund the construction through the leasing of bonds. Sadler and Onizuk voted no, while John McGlennon, Ruth Larson and Michael Hipple all voted in favor.
Current school board members Holly Taylor and Sandy Young both won election last fall on campaigns opposed to the construction of the school, and both voted in opposition to the project's funding in April.
Neither Taylor nor Young attended the groundbreaking on Tuesday afternoon.
Reached by phone, Young said she did not attend the ceremony because she believes the project is a "huge mistake." Taylor was not immediately available.
McKinnon can be reached by phone at 757-345-2341.
Williams can be reached by phone at 757-298-5172.