Supervisors debate whether to revisit middle school proposal at board meeting

The Virginia Gazette

Debate over whether to revisit a proposed fourth middle school project escalated at Tuesday night's Board of Supervisors meeting.

The debate pitted Supervisors Kevin Onizuk and Sue Sadler, against Ruth Larson, John McGlennon and Chairman Michael Hipple as to whether or not the need for the school had been thoroughly vetted. During the board comment section of the meeting, Larson asked whether or not there was consensus for revisiting the issue, which Onizuk asked for during the board's retreat in January.

Onizuk asked for a joint meeting between the Board of Supervisors and the Williamsburg-James City County School division, after recent enrollment projections appear to have been lower than originally thought.

County Administrator Bryan Hill said he was eying a date in April for the meeting, but said he was awaiting responses to an email he sent members of the board asking for what information they needed from the school division in advance of the meeting.

Larson reiterated that she felt the Board needed to defer to what the School Board said it needed.

"We have future needs, I don’t know that we really want to go back and revisit something that’s already been decided," Larson said. Larson most recently served on the School Board and voted in favor of the middle school proposal at the James Blair location during her tenure.

"Yes we are working on a joint meeting, the agenda of the joint meeting is going to be predicated on a couple of emails I’ve sent to the board," Hill told the board, in response to Larson's question. "As of this juncture I haven't received any questions regarding the proposal, I’m at an impasse on my end, because I don’t know what to ask."

Hipple said before any decision was made to ask for a joint meeting, that board members should submit a list of questions for the school division to answer, to see if the meeting was necessary and to make it more productive when it was held. But Hipple also said he felt the issue of the fourth middle school had been addressed by the Board of Supervisors.

"I think as leaders of this community we need to make decisions and move forward," Hipple said. "If we’re going to question them again this year, and we can do it again the following year but there’s a point where we need to make a decision. "We’ve got a school board that’s elected just like we are, that says this is what we need."

But Sadler, a long-time critic of the middle school proposal, said she felt the topic needed to be addressed again.

"I would entertain the ability to have a discussion," Sadler said. She asked County Administrator Bryan Hill how much could be saved if initial funding for the first phase of the school was not needed. Hill estimated about $21 million, saying it would reduce the county's debt portfolio from $226 million to about $205 million. He said there was adequate funding in the county's budget for the middle school proposal.

But Sadler said if it's possible the middle school was unnecessary, discussions needed to move forward on revisiting the issue. She also asked whether the the funds might be better applied to other capital needs, such as funding a source of water.

The Board of Supervisors have been working on gradually reducing the county's debt portfolio, which was a major component of the tax increase passed last year. The goal would be to free up funding for a water project, which could cost as much as $120 million.

"Before we drop that kind of money into everybody's laps, I would like to make sure we absolutely have to do this. "We’re the ones that have to vote for this, I feel like I should be afforded some input. I'm concerned we’re moving on something we may not necessarily need, if we can save money just by having a few more discussions on this…I’m all for it."

McGlennon said he felt the issue had also been vetted thoroughly.

"This has not been an issue that has not been extensively discussed, there's been studies and efforts to flesh out the whole proposal. What we’ve heard more recently is a series of, I woudn't call them facts , some questions, some assertions about things, that I think can be answered."

He encouraged board members to put down questions in writing for the school division.

"My point of bringing this up is, it’s a very large expenditure," said Onizuk, who has not endorsed any particular alternative to the site at James Blair.

"As a leader you move forward, but you also re-examine," Onizuk said.

"We need to do a final vetting before we make such a significant contribution to debt service. We owe it to the people who are coming out here and speaking on this, we owe it to our students and teachers."

"I would just say you’re not relying on your school board, you’re asking them to bring information that they’ve brought to take a re-look at that, we’re not really trusting our school board, let’s be fair to them at that point," Larson said, in response to Onizuk.

Hipple said after the meeting supervisors would submit questions to Hill to forward on to the school division regarding the project proposal.

At Tuesday night's meeting, in other county business, supervisors voted 4-1 to accept a state grant for purchase development rights. Sadler was the sole vote against the item, which she asked to be pulled from the consent agenda.

Supervisors also appointed interim county attorney Adam Kinsman as the county's permanent county attorney. Kinsman will be paid $150,000 for the position, which was most recently held by Michelle Gowdy, who left for a job in Richmond at the Virginia Municipal League.

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