IW school board, supervisors debate $10M proposal

Published 10:11 am Monday, March 6, 2017

Isle of Wight County’s Board of Supervisors remained skeptical following a joint meeting with the county’s school board to further discuss Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton’s request that the county take on $10 million in debt to fund renovations to Smithfield and Windsor high schools. The meeting was held during a Board of Supervisors work session at 6 p.m. in the board room of the Isle of Wight courthouse complex on Thursday.

The proposed renovations include new career and technical education facilities such as a restaurant and catering business for culinary arts students, a health sciences academy for nurse’s aide students, a mechatronics lab, a warehouse to be run by students seeking their forklift certification, a cosmetology classroom, and a working farm and barn at Windsor Elementary for agricultural classes. They also include redesigned cafeterias, media centers and collaboration spaces for both schools, an exercise and fitness room for Smithfield and improvements to the drama room for Windsor.

Thornton opened the discussion for the evening by reiterating that the debt he was asking the county to take on would be repaid from the roughly $950,000 the division would save each year from pulling out of participation with the Pruden Center in Suffolk, $750,000 of which would be deducted from the funds the county gives the division each year until the debt is paid off. He also argued for the necessity of renovating the media centers.

“That building [Smithfield High School] is 40 years old and has existing furniture in it,” he said. “That [media] center was designed for students 40 years ago. Our classrooms are designed for students 40 years ago. Our educational system is vastly different now.”

Smithfield District school board member Kirstin Cook added that she had done research online regarding 21st century high school media centers and had discovered that renovations such as these are being done all over the country to encourage greater collaboration between students.

“This whole effort is designed to teach kids to think, to solve problems, to do things that they have not done before,” said Windsor District school board member Julia Perkins. “We’re not educating our children when we teach them how to take a multiple choice test. When SOLs started in 1993, that was a whole different mindset in the classroom. We went from funding some of these kinds of things in the classroom to teaching kids to take multiple choice tests, and stopped teaching them how to think.”

Dr. Dan Lufkin, president of Paul D. Camp Community College, who spoke on the proposal at the request of the Board of Supervisors, said the division could save costs by pursuing more dual enrollment options with the college rather than trying to do everything in-house.

“Our CNA (certified nursing assistants) program, with Paul D. Camp, we have already acquired a lab for nursing assistants at Smithfield,” Lufkin said. “The beds alone were $16,000. For dual enrollment [students], they could get their theoretical practice at the high school and come over to the center for their practicums for half the cost, if that, and we already have the equipment there.”

But Thornton said Lufkin’s alternative proposal would be little different than what the division currently does with Pruden.

“The main reason we’re leaving Pruden is our kids are choosing not to go because of the travel time and because they have to take it [courses] when they offer it; It doesn’t fit with the rest of their schedule,” he said. “A lot of these kids are in band, they’re in sports, they’re in clubs. The whole point of this was to make it accessible for our children. They’re not going to choose to get on a bus and go all the way to Franklin.”

Windsor District supervisor Joel Acree expressed concerns that echoed those of Newport District supervisor William McCarty at a previous board meeting that Dr. Thornton’s request would make the county have the highest debt in Virginia.

“This is a debt that is going to saddle this county in one way or another for 20 years,” he said.

He also said a citizen contacted him with concerns that the proposal was redundant with programs already being offered by Paul D. Camp Community College.

Smithfield District supervisor Dick Grice said he was for the career and technical education component of the proposal but suggested it might be better to fund the proposal in stages similar to Smithfield Foods’ $3 million grant, which will be given to the division over a 3-year period.

“I am a total advocate for CTE,” he said. “Forty-five to 50 percent of our students who don’t go onto higher ed are being forced through a college prep format. Media rooms and gyms do not get anyone a job unless they’re going to be a health instructor at the YMCA.”

McCarty added that he thought the division should spend its money to address its existing maintenance issues, such as Hardy Elementary’s septic system, before spending funds on anything new.

Jacqueline Carr, the school board’s new Carrsville representative, said she thought that bringing the division’s vocational classes in-house would help retain students considering dropping out of high school.

Ultimately, the supervisors took no action on the request for debt, and legally cannot do so until they hold a public hearing on the matter. Chairman Rex Alphin said he hopes the board will make a decision on how to respond to Dr. Thornton’s request by the end of their next meeting on March 16, and then possibly hold the public hearing during next month’s meeting.

In other business, the supervisors discussed the county’s capital improvement program, which will be debated at a public hearing at the March 16 meeting, reviewed the county’s sign ordinance, and discussed plans for the Tyler’s Beach boat harbor, located in the Rushmere area.