School board focuses on budget proposal, opening before Labor Day

Staff writer

Bullying at James Blair Middle School was again a topic at Tuesday’s meeting of the Williamsburg-James City County School Board, but this time with a twist.

During public comments, Genevieve Bennet, a parent whose son attends James Blair who had come to past meetings to speak about bullying, this time thanked the board for the recent leadership change and actions taken at the school.

“While leadership changes bring a fresh perspective, we cannot pretend the issues that caused them will go away immediately, but I am happy to see action from the school board,” said Bennett. “I look forward to seeing how the board and the school address these issues moving forward.”

The focal point of the meeting, however, was the presentation of the superintendent’s proposed operating budget for next school year.

Olwen Herron said that considerable attention was given to employee compensation, improving safety and security, and improvements to teaching and the school learning environment.

“Our schools are among the best in the commonwealth, and I am proud to say that our parents and taxpayers get a strong return on their investment,” said Herron. “A major focus of this budget plan is taking necessary steps so that we can ensure that this remains the case for years to come.”

Included in the proposed budget is a 1.5% increase in employee healthcare contribution to address rising healthcare costs, hiring a range of new employees, including two special education teachers, one instructional assistant, four middle school assistant principals, five new school counselors and four new security officers for middle schools.

The big ticket item is a planned average 4% salary increase for school employees, totaling $3,822,857, in what Herron said was an effort to make local school salaries more competitive regionally.

“We are 7th out of 9 regionally in pay for teachers with bachelor's degrees, and 9th out of 9 in pay for teachers with masters degrees,” said Herron. “If we are to attract and retain the best employees, from teachers to bus drivers, we will need to support them.”

As it currently exists, there would need to be an additional $710,406 in funding needed for the school division to be funded in full. That figure could change depending on the final state budget.

School board chair Lisa Ownby said that she, in particular, was impressed with how the budget handles several pressing issues within the school division.

“People need to realize that this is a multi-year approach … and that this is a group of kids unlike any we’ve ever taught,” said Ownby. “We need to be prepared to handle the challenges that they bring, and the creativity that it may take so they receive the very best education that they can.”

The proposed school budget will be made available for public comment at a hearing at the next school board meeting.

Though most votes sailed through unanimously, a point of contention was revising the WJCC policy on the admission of homeless children. Though the revision is a minor one — replacing language that references the repealed No Child Left Behind Act in favor of the Every Child Succeeds Act which replaced it — board member Sandra Young was vocally against the policy in any form, providing the only “nay” vote, while also stating that “though required to do so by federal law, she rejects it on principle.”

“I do understand the concept of people are homeless, I know migratory workers or fisherman have circumstances they cannot help,” said Young. “Without documentation, we just don’t know, and as both a taxpayer and steward of tax dollars, I cannot support this.”

Also brought up was the recent repeal of the so-called Kings Dominion law by the General Assembly, meaning that beginning with the 2020-21 school year, divisions are no longer required to start after Labor Day. The law, which previously required a state exemption to be granted to a locality, has now been repealed statewide.

Jim Kelly said that he hoped this would allow greater flexibility in planning a calendar in the future.

“Given the number of delays and closures we have seen the past few years, I want to see how the region may adjust with those greater liberties in the schedule,” said Kelly.

Kyra Cook added that in the future, this greater flexibility may come with a cost to the school’s budget.

“If the rest of Virginia decides to start before labor day, it may impact our funding, because there could be a hit to local tourism,” said Cook. “Hopefully, it won’t be so dramatic, but I feel that should be on our radar moving forward.”

Superintendent Herron mentioned that several other local school superintendents were already planning to meet and discuss the potential changes that could be made school scheduling across the region.

Next meeting

The next meeting of the W-JCC School Board is 6:30 p.m. March 5 at the School Board & Central Office, 117 Ironbound Road, Room 300.

Sean CW Korsgaard can be reached at 757-968-1529, by email sean.korsgaard@vagazette.com, and on Twitter @SCWKorsgaard.

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