JCC Supervisors, WJC School Board host tense meeting on budget

Virginia Gazette

The James City County Board of Supervisors and the Williamsburg-James City County School Board held a tense talk on money matters Wednesday.

School officials argued they had squeezed out the maximum amount of savings without threatening the quality of education. Supervisors relayed a number of questions as to whether or not more savings could be found.

As the supervisors consider raising the real estate tax rate, a number of citizens at public forums have questioned whether the school system could scale back its spending.

The supervisors are considering an 8.2-cent increase in the real estate tax to fund 5 strategic initiatives. One involves replacing aging school buses and refurbishing the roof at Clara Byrd Baker Elementary Schoool. The schools-related projects account for nearly 3 cents of the proposed tax increase.

Board of Supervisors Vice Chairman Kevin Onizuk asked school board members if each item that would be funded by the proposed tax increase was absolutely critical.

"We do have some fiscal challenges we are facing and are possibly looking at an unpopular tax increase that may be needed to maintain our quality of life,"Onizuk said. "We would like to hear our school board members tell me that this is necessary. We’re going to have to go to our citizens and request these funds, we need to show we’re all on the same team here."

Not everyone shared the same playbook. School Board Vice Chairwoman Heather Cordasco, who is running for a seat on the Board of Supervisors, said she felt each item was critical. She also declined to endorse whether or not it was necessary to raise taxes to fund them.

"Is this something we need to do?" Cordasco said rhetorically. "Yes. Do you have to raise taxes to do it? That is your option, not our option. If you’re asking for us to justify your tax increase I’m not going to do it."

"I wouldn’t be sitting here today if I felt these things were not critical for our schools," added Ruth Larson, who sits on the School Board. "You know how important bricks and mortar are."

Supervisors also asked School Board members about whether additional savings were possible in health care plans for school division employees, and changing operating hours for instruction. Jim Kelly, chair of the board, said options were being looked at but that they would have to analyze what the impact would be on division staff and retention.

"We're a people business," Kelly said. "We cannot make a rash, quick decision without understanding the impact to our employees."

Superintendent Steven M. Constantino said he questions critics who want to cut school funding.

"What puzzles me is why you want a mediocre school system? Maybe you should just destroy all the bike paths, that would save money too. I’m talking as a resident. I’m happy to pay my taxes and I’m happy to pay a tax increase because my home is going to benefit."

Onizuk pressed further later, asking if the board decided to pass a flat budget, without any of the tax increases outlined by Hill, how would the school division react.

"How would you balance these critical needs with operating needs if we are not able to provide the additional funding?" Onizuk said.

"We would have to decide what the impact will be on our school division. It’s going to mean a change the way in the way we educate," Larson said.

"The stuff we brought to you that has to be done in the schools, they’re not fluff," Cordasco said. "Theese are more defined than some of the other things that are more defined, such as some of the drainage issues," Cordasco said, referring to stormwater issues the board is considering funding.

Another budget work session is scheduled for Monday at the James City Government Center.

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