Lafayette gym dominates county public hearing on budget

JAMES CITY — In the pews of the James City County Government Center Board room, Lafayette Rams T-shirts were sprinkled throughout the audience.

The county held a public hearing on the budget Tuesday evening, inviting speakers to weigh in on the spending proposal, but most of the discussion centered on building a possible auxiliary gym for Lafayette High School.

Students, parents and teachers at the school have said with the impending knock down of the gym at James Blair, which is used by Lafayette students, they’ll be left with little room for athletic activities. The Williamsburg-James City County School Division requested $2.5 million in its capital improvement plan to fund the gym proposal.

Some members of the Board of Supervisors balked at the request at a joint meeting with the school division last week, saying that the gym project was not expressed as a major concern by the School Board as the county passed a real estate tax increase last year, in part to fund education.

The county has been reluctant to fund major capital improvements in its proposed budget this year, in part because it is going through a strategic planning process that supervisors hope will help to prioritize building expansion needs.

The budget proposal from County Administrator Bryan Hill calls for $193 million in spending over the next fiscal year. It is a 3.3 percent increase over the FY 2016 budget, or about $6.2 million in additional spending. Approximately $103,283,000 of the budget is for schools.

James City County provides 90.54 percent of funding for the school division, the remainder is contributed by the City of Williamsburg.

“This was a strategic discussion many years ago — now it is a necessary, urgent correction. This is a safety issue as it exists today,” said Kathy Woollum, president of the Lafayette Athletic Boosters. “We’re all very busy. Lafayette High School parents are no different. We have games. We have practices – many came here tonight because this is important. Students are here tonight because this is important.”

“Lafayette was built in 1973. Just like any 43 year old building or person, it needs attention,” said Bambi Walters, a Lafayette parent. “I understand from lots of dialogue, everyone agrees the auxiliary gym needs to be built. But the question is when and why now? The James Blair site is going to be demolished, second, there’s a lack of equity. As we’ve previously addressed, Lafayette is the only high school without an auxiliary gym or double gym.”

But others urged the county to reject the request to fund the gym.

“Shoehorning a project such as the Lafayette High School gym is disruptive and damaging to the whole process. The need for this gym is neither sudden, nor created by some unforeseeable catastrophe,” said Judy Fuss.

Ret. Gen. Paul Van Riper, a member of Citizens for a Better James City County, a group that advocates for better planning, said funding an auxiliary gym this year would be a mistake. “Well led organizations do not bring forth known requirements and drop them in the middle of planning efforts in such an unexpected manner,” Van Riper said, referring to the School Board.

He faulted the School Board’s planning efforts, saying the board was dysfunctional and needed more oversight from the county.

“It is past time for the County Board of Supervisors to demand the School Board and the School Superintendent create and follow a credible planning process that establishes goals, actions and metrics, sets priorities, assigning responsibilities for accomplishing these actions, and holds people accountable before it agrees to funding requests,” Van Riper said. “Under no circumstances should the Board of Supervisors disrupt its competent approach to developing its own strategic planning process to meet the impromptu request for the Lafayette auxiliary gym.”

Board of Supervisors Chairman Michael Hipple said he sympathized with the attendees. He said the Board of Supervisors was working to improve communication with the School Board.

"I appreciate all the parents coming out, I understand where you’re at," Hipple said. "We’re going to continue moving forward. We’ll just take it step by step. Communication is so important in everything we do, we know as a board there are no enemies out there, there’s concerned citizens."

The Board of Supervisors will host several work sessions over the next few weeks to consider the budget.

A vote on the budget is scheduled for May 10.

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

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