JAMES CITY – Tuesday's release of the proposed 2015 WJC Schools budget has a county planning committee accusing the division's administration of subterfuge.
At issue is Superintendent Steven Constantino's $11.75 million line item in his proposed capital budget for a new central office.
The proposal took James City officials by surprise. In December, school officials told the county they were not going to request money for a central office this year.
"This is a huge slap in the face and disingenuous on their part," said Robin Bledsoe, a Planning Commission member who chairs the Policy Committee.
The Policy Committee annually reviews and ranks requests for capital projects, things like new buildings and facilities. It then provides recommendations to the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors.
In December, WJC Senior Operations Director Marcellus Snipes and Facilities Manager Alan Robertson met with the Policy Committee. According to the minutes of that meeting, they told committee members that the schools weren't pursuing a new central office.
Three times in that meeting Robertson was asked to confirm that what members were hearing was true: WJC Schools was not requesting $8 million for administration and School Board headquarters.
Instead, the division was asking for $40 million over six years for a new middle school. As a result, the Policy Committee ranked the new school sixth out among 14 ranked projects.
"That was the one thing we had the most trouble with, and we went round and round about it," Bledsoe said.
The concern is that WJC is trying to make an end run around the county's ranking process.
"I personally would have ranked the fourth middle school differently had I known we would be looking at the administration offices as well," said Policy Committee member Tim O'Connor. "It's a lot of money, and I think we need to make sure we're putting our money in our kids' education. Until we determine a location for a fourth middle school, I don't understand a need for the central office to move.
"I think we need to determine the fourth middle school site," he added, "and then decide if we need to move the central office and the costs associated with it."
Reached Friday, Constantino seemed flummoxed about the staff telling the county to disregard the central office funding request. "I don't know why Alan (Robertson) would have said that," he said.
Up until November, Constantino said, the plan was to reconvert James Blair to a middle school and move central office, possibly to municipally owned land near the Williamsburg-James City County Courthouse. That would have shaved $3 million off the costs, bringing the total to $8 million.
Around the time of the November elections, people began questioning whether WJC shouldn't consider placing the middle school closer to areas where enrollment is projected to increase. WJC began working with James City and City of Williamsburg planners to find suitable areas, Constantino said.
Based on those talks, Robertson and Snipes might have surmised that central office was not likely to move, he said.
"It's been a little convoluted, I completely admit that," Constantino said. "It is not my intention to end-run anybody."
Reached Friday, Snipes and Robertson said they believed they had made it clear to the Policy Committee that the capital budget in question was just a draft.
"When we were meeting with the committee, we informed them that it was a draft and it can always change, and it can change again," Snipes said. "That is what we recall stating."
Yet minutes show that twice, Bledsoe and a county staffer specifically asked if the central office request should be pulled. Twice they were told yes.
Snipes said the central office is "constantly being added and subtracted. It was put back into the capital improvement plan recently. At that time it may have been out, but I can't recall. I don't have that information at this time."
They didn't update James City, Robertson said, because "one of the things we stated is that we will continually keep them updated as the School Board changes it, as the superintendent changes it. It's constant. It's not final until the superintendent's budget is approved."
Meanwhile, Constantino said that WJC is almost finished with identifying areas of student growth and announcing plans for the fourth middle school. "I'm coming close to making another recommendation, which will alter this yet again.
"Whatever decision we make about the middle school, we're going to have to live with it for the next 40 years," Constantino said. "So let's make it the right one. And if it takes a little more time, then it's fine."
The Policy Committee has since regrouped. Bledsoe and O'Connor said they will see how the WJC School Board votes on the budget and then re-rank capital projects as appropriate.
Langley can be reached by phone at 757-345-2346.
Christine Sampson contributed.