Questions on 4th middle school, but little change

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JAMES CITY — Supervisors Kevin Onizuk and Sue Sadler asked school officials Tuesday whether the county will delay building a fourth middle school.

Onizuk asked whether using stopgap measures to address crowding issues and building a more "ideal" middle school later was possible, perhaps buying land to do so.

School Board Chairman Jim Kelly, Vice Chairwoman Kyra Cook and Superintendent Steven M. Constantino didn't seem to think so.

And after more than an hour of discussion at the James City County Government Center, the status quo on the middle school project at James Blair didn't change. School officials in favor of the project argued it's necessary to address continued county growth and reduce crowding at schools.

A majority of the School Board supports the plan, along with a 3-2 majority of the Board of Supervisors.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Michael Hipple, along with Supervisors John McGlennon and Ruth Larson have expressed support for the project. Onizuk and Sadler have expressed reservations.

Onizuk and Sadler requested the meeting with school officials after saying they had concerns about enrollment projections provided by the school division, as well as whether the James Blair site was appropriate for a middle school.

The project is estimated to cost about $61 million.

"It's hard for me to spend that much money without talking it to death," said Onizuk. Onizuk previously voted in favor of the project and helped make presentations last week to bond rating agencies in New York on the middle school along with Hipple and County Administrator Bryan Hill.

But Onizuk said he would not vote in favor of the project again based on his current concerns, and urged more discussion as the county considers its budget

It's a big obligation in capital costs, it's a big step, I apologize, but it's hard for me to move forward without talking it to death," Onizuk said.

Supervisor Ruth Larson, who represents the Berkeley District and previously sat on the School Board, said she feels the school division had adequately answered questions about the project in the past.

"I've lived this since 2008, we've asked and answered questions," Larson said. "Sometimes questions are answered, people don't like the answer … so they think, 'If we ask it another way, can we get another answer?'" she said.

"It was my understanding last year this project has already been approved, so are we calling it into question again or moving ahead with that approval?" Larson asked.

Supervisor John McGlennon, who supports the James Blair site, asked whether supervisors who opposed it would be willing to condemn land to obtain a piece of property large enough for a school.

He said a large enough property will be hard to find in the county, and the board may have to acquire it through eminent domain, something the board hasn't shown willingness to do.

Onizuk said the current site location is not ideal.

"My wife would tell you my house is not ideal, but we've lived there 21 years and raised three kids in it," School Board Chair Jim Kelly said.

Critics of the fourth middle school project have pointed to an annex currently at the James Blair site that could be used to alleviate crowding. "If we were to take 200 students and put them at the annex for an interim period for whatever program you deemed necessary, would that immediately solve the overcrowding issue?" Sue Sadler asked.

Superintendent Steve Constantino said relying on the annex poses a risk because it depends on enough students volunteering to attend a yet-to-be-determined specialty center – which would have a lower student population and fewer extracurricular options. If enough students did not volunteer, the school could not force students to attend without rezoning.

School Board Chair Jim Kelly said his wife would throw a fit if his child was redistricted out of his home middle school to attend a 200-student school with fewer amenities in the school annex.

Kelly said not building schools would result in a higher student-teacher ratios in classrooms and lunch would run from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at some of the middle schools.

"I've heard other comments that this is simply a feather in the administration's cap or something the school board wants to do," Kelly said. "I would have given this up a long time ago if our middle school students didn't need this. This is not trying to get the administration the Taj Mahal."

Kelly also explained why the district has used two different enrollment projections for different purposes. Critics have accused the schools of cherry picking data because at times school officials cite the "most likely" projections and at other times the "low" projections.

Kelly said the school uses "low" projections for how much they anticipate getting in state funding and the "most likely" projections to predict how many students will be enrolled in W-JCC schools.

"This was us trying to be conservative on two fronts," Kelly said.

The meeting was also observed by School Board members James Beers, Sandra Young and Mary Minor, although they didn't sit with Kelly and Cook in the work session. They sat in a different room and watched a livestream out of concern for Freedom of Information Act laws that govern how many board members can be present without advertising a public meeting.

"Mr. Onizuk has brought up some interesting questions about if they're going to talk about the strategic plan and developing strategic plan, it makes sense they would hold off on this and take a hard look at what happens in the county. I'd hate to build a school where we don't need it," Young said.

But Minor said she feels the James Blair project is the correct option, saying other alternatives could be more costly. "It isn't going to resolve the larger issue that the middle school is overcrowded," Minor said, referring to stop gap measures.

The Board of Supervisors will have to approve the funding for the middle school in its budget and authorize the county to issue bonds for the project. Any final action will take place after a scheduled joint meeting with the School Board, county and city of Williamsburg on April 22.

McGlennon said he felt it is time to move forward.

"I think that the questions have been answered before, I know it's a large commitment but, we do have to make a decision," McGlennon said.

McKinnon can be reached by phone at 757-345-2341. Bogues can be reached by phone at 757-345-2346.

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