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James City County report details splitting shared school system

Hornsby Middle School is seen
Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools
Hornsby Middle School.

This story was reported by WHRO News.

James City County supervisors now have a blueprint for decoupling the nearly 70-year-old Williamsburg-James City County joint school division.

“It sounds complicated because it is,” said David Gaston, the author of the feasibility study and transition plan for the county.

The question of separation arose in June 2023 when Williamsburg announced its own study into the possibility of establishing a separate school division as Williamsburg students lagged behind James City County students in performance.

In July 2023, James City County adopted a resolution to terminate the joint service agreement that governs the district at the beginning of the 2025-26 school year.

Even so, a split is not finalized. The city and county could return to the table and negotiate a new joint agreement. Both have agreed no separation would officially occur prior to July 2028.

Whichever direction the two localities opt for, Gaston’s report serves as a general roadmap detailing what the process and timeline could look like.

“We were tasked with the opportunity to look at the what if,” Gaston said. “But we also left the door open for if it doesn’t, what could happen there, too?”

Should separation be approved, it puts the district in uncharted waters. Virginia code does not detail a process for nullifying existing joint agreements, like the one governing WJCC.

“We’ve not had a separation — or a division or deconsolidation — in the commonwealth of Virginia happen,” Gaston told county supervisors at a meeting.

Drawing from state code, Gaston laid out what a decoupling could take.

The WJCC school board, Williamsburg City Council and James City County Board of Supervisors would all need to vote to dissolve the joint agreement following required public hearings.

A petition confirming the votes would need to be presented to the Virginia superintendent for public instruction, currently Lisa Coons. She would then have to notify the Virginia Board of Education and each of the 140 members of the General Assembly.

“The General Assembly can get involved in this process ... [A]nd it may happen because there are certain arrangements in local government on the city side that may have to be changed in ... the legislative process,” Gaston said.

Any member could introduce legislation to “change the course of action,” as allowed under state law.

The Virginia Board of Education would also consider the ability for each of the newly separated school divisions to meet Virginia standards of quality criteria on their own.

“Are they going to be able to adequately educate the children, are they going to be able to take care of all of the operational needs, and take care of the buildings?” Gaston said. “What they can also do is, they can impose other conditions for deconsolidation, as well, which could include timelines.”

If any of these criteria are not met, “the process of deconsolidation could be threatened,” according to Gaston.

Williamsburg and James City County would have to determine how to constitute new school boards, account for and redistribute all tangible property owned by WJCC, and create both schoolwide and individual transition plans for students as jurisdictions change.

“This is going to be a well-orchestrated ballet between the two divisions that get established, if that’s the case,” Gaston said.

In addition to redistributing buildings owned by WJCC, the two localities would need to construct new schools, including a new middle school in James City County that is currently expected to cost more than $100 million.

Depending on the time it takes for all that to happen, separation could get pushed back multiple years beyond the current 2028 target, according to Gaston.

James City County will hold listening sessions, focus groups and surveys through September 2024 to better assess county residents’ interest in deconsolidation.

If separation is not approved, Gaston said, it behooves the governing bodies to begin negotiations on a new joint agreement “as early as possible.”

“There’s a lot of fiscal implication in that joint service agreement that will adversely or positively affect the next school budget,” he said. “The budget gun goes off in January with the General Assembly, and then we have to get those budgets out into April [or] May for approval by June. That’s a short time frame.”

The joint service agreement for WJCC was last updated in 2022. Gaston’s report also gives guidance on paths forward for James City County should negotiations to preserve its decades-old agreement with Williamsburg begin.

“With everything happening, how can we make this agreement better?” Gaston said.

Fairfax, for example

Gaston used the city and county of Fairfax as a case study that could help shape a new contract. Those localities struck up their joint agreement in 1962.

Under that agreement, separate school boards exist for the city and the county. Fairfax County Public Schools oversee education services for the county and city, while the City of Fairfax Public Schools manages grounds and facilities owned by the city. Financial expectations are explicit.

“It takes the guesswork out,” Gaston said. “Every year, the city of Fairfax knows exactly what it’s going to owe, and the county knows exactly what it’s going to have to put together.”

The Fairfax agreement also clearly determines a three-year timeline for separation should the agreement be terminated.

“In the event that the city of Williamsburg and James City County are faced with the need to renegotiate a new joint school agreement, this joint school agreement in Fairfax provides important considerations that could guide the localities to a stronger and more transparent negotiated agreement,” Gaston concluded.

Williamsburg-James City County Schools are a member of HRETA, which holds WHRO’s broadcast license.

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