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Williamsburg launches study of independent school district; James City County asks to extend expiring contract

Williamsburg voted Thursday to move ahead with a study of an independent school district - but says a split isn't a sure thing, despite preview vote by James City County. (Image courtesy of Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools)
Hornsby Middle School. (Image courtesy of Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools)

Williamsburg has hired former Hampton Public Schools Superintendent Jeffery Smith to study how the city can operate its own school system.

Just the public mention of such a study was enough to prompt James City County members to vote this summer to end the 70-year-old joint school district after the current contract expires in 2025.

But now, James City County says it needs to extend the expiring contract by several more years to make sure it's ready for the split.

Williamsburg Vice Mayor Pat Dent says nothing’s been decided on the city’s end.

“Even if this study comes back and says it's feasible, there’s still a lot of decision making for this body, so it’s a potential, whereas in some conversations it’s already been projected as a separation," he said ahead of Thursday's vote to approve hiring Smith.

The city will pay Smith $135,000 for the study, which is expected to be completed in January.

The study will effectively look at every facet of an independent school system - from staffing to enrollment, governance to extracurriculars. 

Williamsburg City Manager Andrew Trivette said the city’s feasibility study will only ask whether an independent district would be better - and more economical - than the current joint setup.

“Is that investment the wisest investment, or should we be putting that money toward our own school system to address capacity issues that exist here inside the city?” he said.

The city and county have operated a joint school district since the 1950s. Trivette said the system was designed for a city and county that looked much different than they do today.

In June of this year, Williamsburg floated plans for a feasibility study to look at the advantages and disadvantages of going solo.

James City County’s Board of Supervisors responded by preemptively canceling the current contract, saying they can’t afford to wait around to see what Williamsburg decides and planning needs to start immediately if they’re going to divide the district. 

If the split goes ahead, the city could terminate the contract as early as the beginning of 2025.

The county had already asked Williamsburg to extend the current contract by a year, to 2026, to allow time to build a middle school in the county.

Now, it’s asking for another extension. James City County’s Board of Supervisors voted earlier this week to request the existing schools contract run through the 2027-2028 school year.

County leaders say they need even more time than they thought to prepare for a split.

County administrator Scott Stevens told WHRO the second extension is critical to get that new middle school finished before the split.

The county is working on its own feasibility study in the wake of its vote to cancel the contract.

Stevens initially said the county’s study would be done in September or October. Now, it’s looking more like sometime in the winter.

“The concern was the city would say, ‘Yes, we're ready to split and we need to do it sooner than later because it's good for our students.’ And that would put the county in a place where we have no choice but to have children in an interim middle school before we had a permanent one built,” he said.

If the split goes ahead, though, each new district would have to build a school of its own. Williamsburg has two of the four middle schools in the joint district, while James City County has all three high schools. 

Stevens also said while the termination of the contract wasn’t political maneuvering, it was intended to show that the board took the city’s proposal on its face.

“It's just … getting folks to believe that it's more serious,” he said.

Board of Supervisors Chair Michael Hipple told WHRO in August that if Williamsburg’s feasibility study decided to continue a joint system, he would be happy to renegotiate a contract.

“If the city comes back and they were to say, hey, this really isn't going to work for us, that's going to cost too much … we would negotiate a new contract, if that's the direction that the citizens and the city and the board decide they want to go.”

NOTE: Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools is a member of the Hampton Roads Educational Telecommunications Association, which holds the broadcast license for WHRO.

Ryan is WHRO’s business and growth reporter. He joined the newsroom in 2021 after eight years at local newspapers, the Daily Press and Virginian-Pilot. Ryan is a Chesapeake native and still tries to hold his breath every time he drives through the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel.

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