W-JCC School Board opts to redistrict middle, high schools

The Williamsburg-James City County School Board members heard an earful from residents about changing school boundaries Tuesday night.

Fourteen residents from the county and city advocated for the board to redraw boundaries for high schools in addition to middle schools.

The board listened.

In a unanimous vote, the seven board members agreed to hire Cooperative Strategies, a California-based firm, to redraw middle and high school boundaries for $96,625. 

“It’s definitely the will of the community to redistrict middle and high schools … so for me it’s a no-brainer,” board member Lisa Ownby (JCC Powhatan) said.

With James Blair Middle School set to open in September 2018, middle school zones had to be done to fill the new building.

The option to tackle high schools was brought up to alleviate capacity pressure. All three high schools are at or above the optimal 88 percent capacity levels: Jamestown was at 110 percent in 2016-17, Warhill at 90 percent and Lafayette at 88 percent.

In May the board asked firms to provide bids for only taking on middle school boundaries and for including high school as well. Cooperative Strategies bid for middle schools was $82,205.

Citing the roughly $14,500 difference to do both, Wendy Musumeci said it “makes both practical and economic sense."

The firm was hired to redraw the boundaries and guide the board on related decisions, such as what to prioritize: the capacity of buildings, neighborhood groupings or balancing school diversity.

“There is a glaring inequality in our high schools — unacceptable,” said parent Kristy Hughes. “These are very easily resolved problems. … Let’s make it fair for everyone and redistrict the high schools as well.”

Hughes joined the other 14 speakers asking the board to focus on diversity as an important criterion.

“We need to redraw our boundaries so that the rich diversity of our community is represented,” said Amy Quark, a College of William and Mary professor and a member of the education-advocacy group The Village. “Students learn the most from students that are different from them.”

The criteria to be used in the rezoning process were not decided on Tuesday night.

Despite the unanimous vote, board member Jim Kelly (JCC Jamestown) had reservations about taking on the high school redistricting. He expressed his doubts in earlier meetings, saying the board should take on one level at a time and possibly revisit the high schools next year.

He echoed that idea Tuesday.

“The question is how much does it fix us if all three of the schools are at 95 (percent capacity), the can is still kicked down the curb where we have to do something at the high school capacity level,” Kelly said. “There’s still a certain element of kicking the can down the curb.”

If rezoning balanced capacity at the three high schools, each one would then eclipse the 88 percent ideal amount.

Regardless, the will of the audience was to take on high school zones. While speaking to the board, Kathy Woollum, the president of Lafayette High School’s Athletic Boosters, asked those in the 40-person audience who supported high school rezoning to stand.

Roughly 90 percent did.

“It’s no longer true that all schools are the same (quality),” said Williamsburg resident Beth Chambers. “Every kid, whether in a high property value or low property value neighborhood, deserves a good school.” 

The board's next meeting is scheduled for Aug. 1.

Williams can be reached at 757-345-2341.

Copyright © 2017, The Virginia Gazette