Referendum a matter of timing for W-JCC
The county would like voters to endorse a new radio system for police and fire protection, estimated to cost $8 million
Oct. 20, 2002
It might come down simply to timing — vote in the spring, like in 1994, or wait until fall, when more people usually go to the polls.
The more people who vote, the fall proponents say, the better idea you have of what a community really thinks about an issue – especially important when a lot of tax dollars are at stake.
Eight years ago, James City County, Va., voted 3-to-1 to approve bond sales totaling more than $52 million. Now the county is poised for a referendum on about the same amount – maybe a little more.
Like last time — though the borrowing approval would address more than one county project — the big-ticket item among them is a new school.
On March 1, 1994, fewer than 5,000 of the county’s 21,000 registered voters gave the go-ahead to build Jamestown High School, expand Norge Elementary and do significant renovations to aging, overcrowded Lafayette High. They also enabled the county to expand its recreation center and build a library in the Norge community.
A third high school leads the discussion this time, at a cost that’s crept up over the past several years from $35 million to $45 million. In addition, the county would like voters to endorse a new radio system for police and fire protection, estimated to cost $8 million.
Taxes were a concern in 1994, when a real estate tax-rate increase of 10 cents for every $100 of assessed value was envisioned to cover the new debt. The rate today is 87 cents for every $100, which is 12 cents higher than before that referendum.
In the current discussion, however, tax talk has been noticeably spare. Upon advice from a financial consultant, James City is feeding its debt-service reserve fund, putting aside the equivalent of 2 cents of the tax rate each year. The Board of Supervisors opted to do this for the 2002-03 fiscal year, instead of cutting the rate 2 cents to balance increased real estate values. County Finance Manager John McDonald estimates that the set-aside amount each year will be $1.1 million — which, he said, should grow as assessed values increase.
McDonald said this strategy should cover construction costs but not the additional costs of running a new school. Operating costs for Jamestown High, which opened in 1997, are about $3 million a year.
He noted that the county’s hopes in this matter rode on uncomfortable state-budget currents.
Williamsburg, by contract with James City, would pay about 10 percent toward a new high school. It’s not enough to warrant seeking voter approval in a referendum and might not require a city tax-rate increase. City Manager Jack Tuttle said last month that it was too soon to answer the tax question.
The City Council and Board of Supervisors will meet with the joint School Board on Oct. 28 to talk, among other referendum issues, about when to put the question on the ballot.
No formal vote has been taken by the School Board on this point, though its members have made clear that they would prefer a special election this spring. A majority of the supervisors have said they don’t like that idea.
“It’s my view, and I think that of a majority of the board, to have it in the fall,” Supervisor Bruce Goodson said. Coincidentally, he and two of his four colleagues — Chairman Jim Kennedy and Vice Chairman Jay Harrison — are up for re-election then.
Goodson said he’s less concerned that a referendum question on the same ballot might hurt his chances for re-election than he was that a premature referendum — were it conducted in the spring — might not prevail.
“What I’m concerned about is the referendum losing. If it loses, all this work over the past couple of years is down the drain. None of us wants to see that,” he said.
School Board Chairwoman Kay Ainsworth said she thought that her board should defer to the supervisors if they insisted on a fall referendum. “We’re not going to let that be a divisive issue,” she said.
The School Board, she said, would wait until after the Oct. 28 joint meeting to make that decision. “We want their input, and, frankly, if they’re all leaning toward a November referendum … I think it would be wise to go along with them,” she said.
Ainsworth said a perceived advantage in conducting a special election could cut both ways because of lower voter turnout. “I’ve heard it said that if you mobilize your forces, you could win with fewer people voting. On the other hand, a group of very adamant people could do the same thing against it,” she said.
No organized opposition to a referendum has emerged. But a group calling itself The WJC Education Coalition has been nipping at the School Board’s heels, questioning whether the board has considered other — and less costly — options to a new school.
Suggested alternatives include expanding Jamestown High or building a magnet center with specialized programming. The magnet would draw students from both W-JCC high schools and from neighboring communities.
Supervisor Michael Brown tossed another idea on the table last month: He suggested that grades be realigned throughout the entire system, moving ninth grade to the middle schools and sixth grade to elementaries, where classrooms could be added if necessary.
School officials are giving short shrift to this idea. “Mr. Brown’s proposal,” W-JCC spokesman Chuck Maranzano said, “ignores the qualitative function of education and compresses it into a formula designed to define education as a simple matter of placing bodies in a physical space based upon a square-foot calculation.”
Dale Baird is schools superintendent in Brunswick County, one of eight school systems in Virginia that don’t include ninth grade in their high schools. He said he wished that he could.
“With us, it’s simply because of space. If I could wave a magic wand today to change that, I would do so,” Baird said. He cited social and curriculum problems in lumping ninth-graders with seventh- and eighth-graders. The curriculum problems became especially noticeable, he said, with the advent of Virginia’s Standards of Learning.
Fueling arguments to seek cheaper solutions to enrollment growth are the enrollment projections themselves. They indicate that high school enrollment would be about 450 over the combined capacities of Jamestown and Lafayette highs for the 2006-07 school year, when the third school would open. This hardly justifies a new high school built for 1,250, skeptics contend.
School officials point out that enrollment projections are, by design, conservative. They also said that with the county’s steady residential growth, enough new children would have entered the school system by September 2006 that a third high school would be needed. Enrollment, they note, is now over capacity at Jamestown and Lafayette.
WJC Education Coalition member Mary Ann Maimone said a spring referendum was too soon to enable the community to fully examine the options.
“It’s so important to have maximum participation in the system,” Maimone said. “This is growing into a divisive issue, and having it in the spring can divide the community even more.
“I hope we’ll come up with something really terrific that the whole community can support.”
Mathew Paust can be reached at 804-642-1738 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2002, Daily Press, Newport News, Va. All rights reserved. Republished with permission.