WJC School Board approves one plan for new middle school as James City developer pitches another

JAMES CITY -- The Williamsburg-James City School Board green-lighted a plan Tuesday to locate a new concept for a fourth middle school at the James Blair site, but just before the vote board member Heather Cordasco unveiled education’s equivalent of a political October surprise, revealing that she was aware of an alternative site in James City County.

Cordasco, who cast the sole dissenting vote in the School Board’s decision Tuesday, even said she had seen “plans” and “blueprints.” However after the meeting, she declined to discuss the source of the information or the location of the parcel, saying only that it would “become clear soon.”

She is one of at least three School Board members who said they had received phone calls prior to the meeting about a new parcel of land for a potential school. Following the meeting, those three Board members declined to directly identify the individual who made those phone calls. Two of those Board members, Ruth Larson and Joe Fuentes, voted to support the new phased-in concept at James Blair.

According to an email obtained by the Gazette, one local developer is pitching a concept for a fourth middle school on a property known as the Warburton Tract, a 180-acre parcel off News Road once eyed for a combination of workforce housing and eldercare. Public records show the property is assessed at $3.1 million as of July 2014.

The email obtained shows developer Chris Henderson, senior vice president of CBRE, pitched an idea for a school to James City Supervisors Michael Hipple, Mary Jones and Kevin Onizuk on Oct. 17. The email appears to exclude supervisors Jim Kennedy and John McGlennon. Henderson’s pitch suggests that 115 acres of the Warburton Tract can be used for a school, which would be surrounded by a residential area. He also appears to have picked out a construction company, Ritchie Curbow Construction – the same company that built Isle of Wight’s new Georgie D. Tyler Middle School, which opened this year and cost $19.3 million according to The Virginian-Pilot – as well as a project engineer, AES, which has previously worked with WJC Schools.

“It is our intention to use the same architect who did the plans for James Blair who also did the work for Isle of Wight. This will save time and money. We believe we can deliver this project within the $32M allocated excluding furniture, fixtures and equipment and have the facility ready to go in August of 2017,” Henderson wrote in the Oct. 17 email to Jones, Hipple and Onizuk.

Henderson noted the confidential nature of the negotiations, and said the owners would like to have the school named after the Warburton family.

In his conclusion, Henderson wrote: “Should this be something you would like for me to pursue, I need to hear from you. My team has already spent considerable time, money and effort in trying to provide you with an alternative to the plan developed by the school administration.”

The vote on the James Blair site during the School Board meeting was based on the School Board’s Oct. 7 discussion, during which Superintendent Steven Constantino recommended a phased-in approach to a new middle school. In that approach, which was approved Tuesday, a 600-student school would share the James Blair site with the Central Office for several years before the office portion would be demolished and the school enlarged to hold 300 more students as future needs developed. Its phase one price tag was $29.6 million, with phase two – adjusted for escalation – expected to cost another $29 million. That would also not include the cost of building and relocating a new central office facility.

Sampson can be reached at 757-345-2345.

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