JAMES CITY COUNTY, Va. (WAVY) — For nearly 70 years, the City of Williamsburg and James City County have shared responsibilities of funding education for kindergarten through 12th grade students, but now that could all come to an end.
On Tuesday, James City County’s Board of Supervisors voted to preemptively terminate their joint school system contract with the city. The decision will go into effect for the 2025-2026 school year at the earliest, to ensure the county has time to prepare for the split, county officials said.
“When I heard the news that they voted to terminate the contract, it was a surprise to me,” said Williamsburg Mayor Doug Pons.
The move comes over a month after Williamsburg’s city council passed a resolution authorizing an investigation into the feasibility of a school operations split. They said the study is the first step to “consider alternatives to the traditional K-12 educational model for improved pathways to higher education and certificate programs through coordination with local institutions,” like the William & Mary School of Education.
Pons says the city doesn’t have the results of that study yet, but even if they did “we would have begun a conversation with the community to see in fact it was something the community wanted us to pursue.”
But in what is looking like a communication issue between the two governments, county leaders wonder why that wasn’t done first?
“No issues have been raised by the city to express that kind of concern about the nature of the contract,” said John McGlennon, a James City County supervisor. “We are kind of puzzled as to what is driving this particular effort and recognize we need to prepare.”
Currently, the two independent government entities share a school system. The county has about 10,000 students and 13 schools, while Williamsburg has 1,000 students across three schools: Matthew Whaley Elementary, James Blair Middle and Berkeley Middle.
McGlennon says the county is looking at what all this would mean for them, including possible tax increases.
When asked why couldn’t the county have a contingency plan while still staying the course, McGlennon said: “because it does involve some significant factors such as acquiring the property that would be necessary for building a middle school. It would require a determination in how faculty and staff in the system will be treated.”
The county said in its statement that despite any possible changes, all teachers and staff currently employed are expected to keep their jobs.
At that time though it’s still unclear if the entities will actually split operations. McGlennon says ultimately he’d be willing to go back to the table with the city to negotiate another five-year deal to stay under the joint system.
In response to the board of supervisors’ vote, Williamsburg-James City County Schools Superintendent Olwen E. Herron sent a message to school system staff. She said “while many unknowns exist,” the city and county won’t operate as separate school systems until the 2025-26 school year “at the earliest” and “while the structure may look different, the residents – the students – of the City of Williamsburg and James City County will not fluctuate. Demand for educational services will remain for the next two years and beyond.
She also repeated the city’s announcement that all current teacher and staff are expected to keep their jobs going forward.
“We have done and will continue to do great work in service to our students and the community,” she added.
The City of Williamsburg also released a statement on Wednesday, saying “obviously, separation is a possibility we have been studying, as announced in June, but we have not reached any final decisions regarding that issue.”
“While the County’s action does not change the City’s plan to thoroughly study the impacts of separation before making a decision, our study will now necessarily focus more acutely on what an independent school system may look like. Our intention continues to be to make a thoughtful and deliberate decision that puts the needs of students, families, and teachers first,” the city said.
The city says residents can check updates on the feasibility study on their website.
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