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Williamsburg, James City County residents split on breaking up joint school district

Residents of both Williamsburg and James City County agreed the academic performance of Williamsburg students — who lag behind their county peers — is a problem that needs to be addressed.
Residents of both Williamsburg and James City County agreed the academic performance of Williamsburg students — who lag behind their county peers — is a problem that needs to be addressed.

Concerns about the cost and student performance in an independent Williamsburg school district pop up in resident feedback.

Williamsburg and James City County residents are split on whether creating an independent school district is the best way to help improve the academic performance of Williamsburg students.

That’s the main takeaway from the public feedback the City of Williamsburg got over the last few months as it considers ending the joint school district it’s run with James City County since 1955.

Mayor Doug Pons said the citizen feedback brings up a lot of issues that need to be resolved. The city council will discuss next steps for exploring the creation of an independent school district at its meeting on May 9.

“We’re a long way from being able to make that decision,” Pons said. “There’s a lot of questions that need to be answered along the way.”

The City of Williamsburg announced in June 2023 it would study splitting the school district.

Officials have said feedback from an earlier resident survey was one of the reasons they were looking at ending the long-standing arrangement, though the survey doesn’t ask about or mention ending the joint school district or the city creating its own.

Williamsburg’s students lag behind those coming from James City County in every testing category and fall far below state and federal standards, according to data provided in the feasibility study.

The joint district’s overall scores are buoyed by the fact that James City County students outnumber those from Williamsburg roughly 10 to one.

Many who responded to surveys or appeared at public sessions wanted more information before the city commits to a course of action, said Kate Maxlow, one of the consultants the city hired to study the creation of an independent school district.

“Most did agree that the current student achievement of City of Williamsburg students was unacceptable and some kind of intervention was needed,” Maxlow said.

Williamsburg hired former Hampton City Schools superintendent Jeffrey Smith to do the feasibility study, which he presented to the council in March.

It said, among other things, that the split couldn’t happen until August 2028 at the earliest and it would cost millions of dollars morefor the city to operate its own, smaller school district.

After Williamsburg announced it would be doing this study last year, the James City County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to preemptively end the joint school division with the current contract, which runs until the end of the 2025-/2026 school year.

Williamsburg and James City County came together to create the joint school district in 1955, in an era where the city was the center of the population. But the population and demographics have changed dramatically over the last several decades.

Williamsburg students are currently far more likely to be Black or Hispanic than those coming from James City County. City students are also more likely to be economically disadvantaged, English language learners and homeless than their county counterparts.

The study says all of this adds up to a potential need for more targeted support and resources if Williamsburg becomes its own school district.

Several residents told consultants they wanted more information, like specific budget breakdowns about how much it will cost taxpayers for the city to go solo and what the projected student body growth looks like for the near future.

Note: Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools is a member of the Hampton Roads Educational Telecommunications Association, which holds the broadcast license for WHRO. Multiple members of the WJCC School Board sit on WHRO boards and committees.

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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