Lafayette gym gets attention at joint meeting

abogues@vagazette.com

The School Board, the Board of Supervisors and Williamsburg City Council all agree that building an auxiliary gym for Lafayette High School should be a high priority. But after a joint meeting at the Stryker Building with nearly 20 elected and appointed officials on hand, there was little consensus on how quickly the project should happen.

Students, teachers and parents at the high school say they need an additional gymnasium to meet the needs of student athletes, especially after the soon to-be demolished James Blair gym is no longer an option. But the county and School Board have competing visions of how soon a project could be funded.

The school division wants funding included in the county's 2017 capital improvement plan that will go into effect in July. Some county supervisors want to wait until after a strategic plan is finished before deciding whether to fund any expansion projects.

One thing is clear — an auxiliary gym will not be built in time for next school year. The project would likely take 18 months or longer once funding is in place, school officials said.

Supervisor Kevin Onizuk, who represents the Jamestown District, said he is frustrated that the project was not brought to supervisors' attention last year when the county passed a tax increase, boosting revenues for preventative maintenance and setting in place a funding stream for eventual new capital projects.

"First off, I'm kind of curious how we got into this situation, what was the plan?" Onizuk asked City Council and School Board members.

"We went through a very in-depth budget cycle last time around. We made some very difficult choices. This wasn't on our radar screen."

W-JCC Schools Superintendent Steven M. Constantino said the decision was made to place Lafayette into the school's capital improvement plan after he met "with several members of the Lafayette High School community" this spring.

"I thought very carefully about what I was told, I got a little bit of the history over what has happened over the years, I then recommended that the gym be placed back into the CIP."

The school division would like $2.5 million for the Lafayette auxiliary gym in the 2017 county funding plan, and delay a Norge Elementary HVAC project into 2018. County Administrator Bryan Hill said that would be difficult because of the additional costs in the financial plan. "You're not swapping a dollar for a dollar," Hill told the Gazette.

While the School Board sets educational plans and policy, it relies on the county and city for funding.

Stonehouse Supervisor Sue Sadler said at a budget forum Thursday night that the county should consider temporarily diverting $1.5 million for roads in the county budget to help build an auxiliary gym at Lafayette High School.

"I am certainly appreciative of all of the strategic planning efforts that have been taking place around here. I'm certainly in favor of strategic planning. But one of our immediate needs that we've been hearing about throughout the community is the need for an auxiliary gym at Lafayette High School. I believe there was a rush to sign contracts for demolition to begin at James Blair without taking into consideration that Lafayette uses James Blair for our team practices," Sadler said.

Longstanding need

Board of Supervisors Chairman Michael Hipple cautioned against making changes to the financial plans outlined to bond rating agencies last month, saying deviating from the plan could result in being penalized.

"If we start changing certain things midstream, it may put up a red flag," Hipple said.

Onizuk said he also had concerns about changing plans, but said a small one could be accommodated as long as the county sticks to its broader goals.

"We can certainly explain a small deviation, that's understandable," Onizuk told the Gazette. "As long as we stay on track with our overall plan. "We're not going back for any other credit ratings soon, you go when you're looking to borrow money." He said the county could look for "creative solutions" for the challenge, but said they needed to be "economically viable."

"There are facility needs throughout the system," County Administrator Bryan Hill said. (City Manager Marvin Collins) has facility needs throughout Williamsburg, I have facility needs in the county … that is the reason they hired me, to do a strategic plan. Dropping things in when you want to causes a lot of financial distress for all of the funding partners here. I'm not fighting against or for, but if you drop something in that's unplanned, something else that is planned will not be funded, you've got to think about it on a holistic approach going forward," Hill said.

The county is working with Clarion Associates, an outside consultant to help develop a strategic plan that will include a public facilities master plan. The plan is expected to be completed at the end of 2016.

County officials have shied away from making major budget decisions on capital improvements this year as they await the guidance in the strategic plan.

The exception is the James Blair Middle School site, which the Board of Supervisors authorized financing for this year, after years of planning with the school division.

But School Board member Mary Minor said the need for an auxiliary gym has been long standing. She said it has moved in and out of school division financial planning as budgetary pressures from the recession and state mandates have come over the years.

"The only reason it's a drop in for you, is because you're new," Minor told Hill, adding she agreed with him that building projects needed to be tackled in a strategic manner. "For members of this community it was an 'oops'. It's a correction of an 'oops'," Minor said. "We do need to do some serious planning, I've been an advocate for a long time for having a comprehensive plan."

"It is also kind of an equity issue that needs to be corrected," said School Board member Julie Hummel. "I haven't heard anyone that doesn't agree there isn't a deficit at Lafayette High School with the auxiliary gym being needed yesterday."

Splitting the cost

Williamsburg Mayor Clyde Haulman said Friday he thought the Lafayette project should be fast-tracked, noting a large number of city students attend the school.

"We prefer Lafayette sooner than later, but it seems to me it's a discussion between the school board and James City County about the timing," Haulman said.

Cost projections for the gym range from $1.7 million to $3.7 million.

"We have a situation coming along that's going to further limit their access to facilities to do the basic things and functions required to put out competitive teams on the fields and courts," said Vice Mayor Paul Freiling regarding student athletes at Lafayette.

"If we put the gym in the CIP now, that gym is not going to be there next school year. What are those student athletes going to do? I'll leave that to the School Board to decide. Children driving other children all over the city and county, that's just not a safe and reasonable approach, we've got to figure out how to get this gym worked into the CIP."

Hipple said because the county bears the majority of funding responsibility for the school division, it has to be careful with decisions.

"With James City County carrying 90 percent of all the load, it does affect our budget and what we're doing," Hipple said. "If I was at 10 percent it would be easier to say let's do it all," he joked, to some laughter in the building."

The meeting Friday adjourned without any clear decision, except that all members said they wanted to improve communication between the school division and its two funding bodies.

Decisions remain as to finding additional space for Lafayette athletes for the next school year.

After the meeting, Constantino told the Gazette he didn't know if the school division would seek additional space at the James City County Recreation Center, as has been suggested at some of the county budget forums.

"I've not heard that specific comment, as we plan together, Mr. Hill has been very gracious. He has sat down with us and looked at some alternatives. I can't say that's going to happen or that's not going to happen."

"I still have questions, as you saw in the meeting, they were not able to get all my questions today," Onizuk told the Gazette. "I think there's a lot of work to do."

Bogues can be reached by phone at 757-345-2346.

County budget meetings

Here are the next few meetings on the fiscal 2017 budget for James City County

April 26

Public Hearing

6:30 p.m. at James City County Government Center, Building F

April 28

Board of Supervisors work session 4 p.m. at James City County Government Center, Building F

The government center is located at 101 Mounts Bay Road.

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