Saturday, December 9, 2023

Williamsburg School Study Hot Topic In James City County

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JAMES CITY–It’s safe to say that Williamsburg’s decision to commission a study on whether to separate from James City County and run its own school district caught their partners by surprise.

“Like most, I was totally blindsided,” said Jamestown District Supervisor Jim Icenhour. “(But) I’ll wait until we collect a lot more data before considering an opinion and will value feedback from constituents.”

Roberts District Supervisor John McGlennon got a heads-up just before the City Council acted June 8.

“Since we hadn’t heard of any particular motivation, I assume it may be just part of the city’s periodic reconsideration of the issue,” he said. “If there was dissatisfaction of some kind, it probably would have been aired during the contract discussions last year or the ongoing school liaison meetings or joint meetings among the City Council, School Board, and Board of Supervisors.”

Ruth Larson, who represents the Berkeley District, said what she’s heard from constituents is primarily about whether the county will do its own study.

“I think the question will be raised in the near future,” Larson said. “We need to do our due diligence so that we are prepared should they decide to run their own division. It is imperative that we watch the process unfold and remain committed to continuing to provide the best education possible for all students regardless of city or county citizenship.”

Meanwhile, the city council’s vote to authorize a feasibility study on whether to run its own school district has thrown a wrinkle into James City County’s November election of three new members to the joint Williamsburg/James City County School Board. All six candidates are newcomers. (Williamsburg’s two representatives to the board are not elected but appointed by the city council.)

Randy Riffle, a legislative aide to Delegate Mike Mullin, who is running for the Berkeley District seat on the school board, is taking a wait-and-see approach.

“From my understanding, they (city and county) regularly evaluate their partnership,” he said. “Because I work for the state, I know we study stuff every year just so we know what the options are. At this point, it’s too early to speculate on whether this would be a good or a bad idea but those are the things the study will tell us.”

Like Riffle, Max Blalock, a candidate for the Roberts District seat, is getting questions as he campaigns. 

“I’m definitely having conversations with folks about it,” he said. “I believe that we’re better together in utilizing all the resources of the county and the city to ensure our students get the best education possible. However, I believe in making the best-informed decisions we can.”

The topic is also coming up on the campaign trail for the Board of Supervisors. Lisa Ownby, who spent five years on the WJCC School Board from 2016 to 2021, and is now running to replace retiring Stonehouse District Supervisor Sue Sadler, said she’s getting questions as she knocks on doors.

“I am hearing buzz,” she said. “Nobody feels like this is a foregone conclusion but some teachers are concerned that the end result could be two mediocre school districts.”

Her biggest question is what would happen to the city’s 300 high school students. There are three public schools within the city’s boundaries – Berkeley and James Blair middle schools and Matthew Whaley Elementary – but no public high school.

“Kindergarten through eighth grade could function very similarly to how they do now, but what about those 300 high school kiddos?” she said. “There could be some really groundbreaking and flexible alternatives, using Virtual Virginia, but how would they do the related arts and athletics?”

Teachers, too, have questions, said Allyn Parham, president of the local teachers’ union.

“The union hasn’t made an official statement yet but we are definitely urging the city to be communicative and transparent with their study,” Parham said.

Williamsburg residents make up about nine percent of the WJCC school system’s students. There are a total of 11,000 students enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade, across the system’s 16 schools, according to Kara Wall, the school district’s communications chief.

Just over 1,000 students enrolled in the system this past school year were city residents, according to the 2024 Williamsburg city budget. Over 16 percent of the city’s budget for this fiscal year was slated for school-related expenditures.

Williamsburg City Manager Andrew Trivette emphasized that the idea for a study was driven by feedback from city residents who expressed having more control and greater options over educational opportunities for students, an idea that was included in the city’s 2023-2024 Goals, Initiatives, and Outcomes (GIO), adopted in November 2022.

“One of the themes that came back was that the city needed to pay attention to innovation in the realm of public education, specifically asking us to consider new avenues for educating in a public school system, K-12, with greater tie-ins to higher education and certificate outcomes,” Trivette said. “A lot of folks mentioned that we should rely on the assets we have right here on our front porch, including Colonial Williamsburg and William & Mary.”

The vote to approve the feasibility study was unanimous. The city hopes the study will be conducted this fall. Once completed, the city promises multiple opportunities for public input based on the study’s findings.

Any implementation of recommendations from the study would take place, at the earliest, in the 2025-2026 school year. Williamsburg contracts every five years with James City County for school services and is currently in year two of the existing contract.

“(That) gives us about three years to consider alternatives and determine what steps we might want to take,” Trivette said. 

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