The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to approve a plan to fund an auxiliary gym for Lafayette High School Monday, ending the most contentious portion of the 2016-2017 budget cycle.
The board voted to fund the project by using excess funds it plans to borrow for the construction of a fourth middle school site at James Blair.
County Administrator Bryan Hill said after working during the weekend he came up with a plan along with Superintendent Steven M. Constantino for the project, where the School Division would provide $1 million in funding for the project, along with a $1.25 million contribution from the county.
The remainder would be provided by the city.
The School Board included the Lafayette auxiliary gym in its Capital Improvement Plan after Constantino met with parents, teachers and students at Lafayette this past year and determined the need was urgent.
Constantino's plan would have moved an HVAC replacement at Norge Elementary back a year in the five year capital improvement program for the county. But county officials said the substitution would not result in a "dollar for dollar" exchange, and would delay the much needed project at Norge.
Two weeks ago at a joint meeting between the Board of Supervisors, Williamsburg City Council, and the School Board, all parties agreed the gym was a priority, but there was little consensus on how quickly to make it happen.
At the public hearing on the county budget last week, most speakers addressed the Lafayette gym issue, with more than 40 students and teachers lined up in the pews of the board room to show their support.
Lafayette students use the James Blair gym, which is going to be demolished for the new middle school construction. Some members of the Board of Supervisors balked at Constantino's plan, saying the addition was placed in at the last minute, and that the Lafayette issue hadn't come up last year when the county went through a heated tax debate--in part to fund capital improvements and maintenance.
"I’m still sticking to my guns here that Norge has to be included," Hill said at the work session Monday afternoon in the James City County Government Center.
He offered two plans, one that would defer other projects and count on the school division having surpluses in its budget for years to come, and the other which would require the county to borrow the additional funds for the James Blair project which were already authorized.
Cost estimates for the Lafayette auxiliary project have fluctuated, but Hill told the Board of Supervisors that Constantino said the project would cost about $2.4 million.
The Board of Supervisors authorized the county to borrow $26. 75 million for the James Blair middle school project. Typically the authorization is made a little bit above the request, $25.5 million, for closing costs and other contingencies, according to Sue Mellen, director of finance for James City County.
Ruth Larson, who represents the Berkeley District on the Board of Supervisors, and previously sat on the School Board, said she felt the Lafayette gym had to be addressed.
"I think the school division did a lot in good faith for many years as the funding was short. We stepped up and pushed things down the road," Larson said. "This was supposed to be solved a long time ago by a gym on the grounds between Warhill and Lafayette…I’m not saying you were here, that was what was supposed to happen," she said, acknowledging that many of the members of the Board of Supervisors weren't in office during initial conversations about the auxiliary gym.
"I think that we've got to be prepared and be very careful planning these additional facilities," Board Vice Chairman John McGlennon said.
"I think that it's important for schools and its important for our partenership as their fiscal agents , that they know in the future we can’t come up with $2 million for a project that hasn’t been planned," said Supervisor Kevin Onizuk.
Before the vote for the supervisors to back the plan, Chairman Michael Hipple read a lengthy statement saying the School Board needed to do better communicating funding requests and identifying priorities.
"The Lafayette gymnasium is a large project that has been in and out of various School Capital Improvement Plans. A project of this size and expense is not one that should appear and reappear. For example, replacement of the Norge HVAC system has been planned for a long time in this budget and is no surprise," Hipple said.
"Capital projects need to be evaluated and planned long before they appear in front of this body. The county is going through a strategic plan and it is my hope that the schools will do the same."
"Because of the fortunate timing of the Fourth Middle School bond issuance, I am willing to fund the gymnasium even though this is a last minute addition to this CIP and this budget. This cannot become the norm and is a one-time fix. If this happens again, I will ask that the Board completely rethink how we fund the schools."
The county is in the midst of a strategic planning process being conducted under the guidance of a third party consultant, Clarion Associates. Supervisors have avoided considering major capital projects in this year's budget plan with the exception of the middle school, awaiting the recommendations of the strategic plan.
Hipple told the Gazette after the meeting that he meant for the statement before the vote to be worded tersely.
"I meant to be stern about it, we’re too good of a community and a county, not to be able to catch these things ahead of time," Hipple said.
"To know there is a remedy in sight and it’s going to happen and it’s going to move forward as swiftly as possible, it’s a great feeling," said Kathy Woollum, president of the Lafayette Boosters Club.
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