Foods offers $3 million

Published 1:39 pm Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Projects to cost a total of $18 million

By Ryan Kushner

Staff writer

It was a whirlwind of a week for Isle of Wight County Schools as Smithfield Foods announced a $3 million donation to Smithfield High School and school administrators unveiled plans for new buildings and an influx of career and technical education programs at its high schools.

The $3 million “Smithfield Foods Legacy Project” was revealed Thursday by Foods CEO Kenneth Sullivan and will fund three new building projects at Smithfield High, including a JROTC fieldhouse, a Makerspace and a multi-use pavilion modeled in part after The Smithfield Center.

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But the surprises didn’t end there. Administrators used the opportunity to announce the division’s plans to introduce renovations to the school’s cafeteria and media center, and the construction of a collaborative space and an exercise room in the high school’s main building.

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Inside the to-be renovated “career building” (formerly known as the “E-building” located behind the high school), the division plans to introduce new professional-grade workspaces for its culinary arts program, a Health Sciences Academy, a welding lab, mechatronics lab and global logistics lab, with an eye on offering professional certifications to students to ensure that they are “career ready.”

Also on the horizon for Smithfield High School is a new athletic fieldhouse beside its football field.

The money for the programs and renovations that are not being funded by Foods’ Legacy Project will be repurposed from county funds that had previously been used to pay for technical education classes at The Pruden Center for Industry and Technology, according to Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton, which cost the division $950,000 annually for 220 student slots. Over the last few years, the highest number of certifications Isle of Wight students received from Pruden was 66 in one year.

The division announced last year that it would end its relationship with Pruden, citing low student participation in the program.

Windsor High School, which held a similar unveiling Friday (sans Smithfield Foods), will also have a renovation of its cafeteria, along with a new outdoor student dining area. The former middle school cafeteria at the high school will be converted into a collaboration zone, and the school will be getting a new media center on its second floor, with an improved projecting booth for its drama department.

Outdoors, the school is slated to have a science classroom, an art courtyard, and an 80 by 40-foot green house. The largest addition planned for the school, however, located behind Windsor Elementary, is a working farm and a barn, where students would be able to grow crops, have classes, and potentially aid in the care for animals such as goats and cows.

As for new programs, administrators announced a new cosmetology program in the high school, where students will also learn to start and run their own business, along with a new building lab where students will learn how to build houses, among other things, according to Director of Innovative Learning Michael Lombardo.

The phases of the many projects for the high schools have not yet been officially mapped out, but the division is looking to begin the interior renovations to the schools first, and is pushing to begin very soon, according to Lombardo.

Renovations, the cosmetology program and the building lab at Windsor High could be ready to go by as early as next fall, Lombardo said.

The larger projects, such as the barn, green house and Smithfield High’s new buildings, would be bid out with an RFP.

All told, it is a three-year implementation plan, according to Thornton.

The plans for the projects have existed for some time, but kicked into high gear when Sullivan expressed interested in donating a sum of money after speaking at Smithfield High School graduation last year, according to Thornton.

Total estimated costs for all of the projects at both schools, including as-yet unfunded plans, are more than $18 million, which includes the $3 million given by Foods. 

Because the money for the projects will all derive from the funds formerly used to pay the Pruden Center, there will be no additional costs to taxpayers for the initiatives, Thornton said.

The division plans to ask the Board of Supervisors to take out a 20-year loan to pay for the project, which would cost about $750,000 a year in debt service — less than the amount paid to Pruden each year.

“We’ll actually reduce our budget by $750,000 and that money will be converted to capital money for debt service at the county side, is what we’re proposing,” Thornton said to the School Board on  Thursday.

Thornton said he has been in talks with Isle of Wight County Administrator Randy Keaton about starting the work soon.

“We’re going to need their support with financing it … so hopefully we can move quickly so we can get those spaces open on time,” Thornton said.

The School Board, which was supportive of the initiatives during the meeting, has had no involvement in creating the plans or approving the plans revealed by Thornton, and did not know of their existence until December, according to Newport News District Representative and Vice-Chair Vicky Hulick. Thursday was the first time they were fully briefed.

Windsor Supervisor Joel Acree said he was unaware of the plans until they were announced Thursday. Smithfield Supervisor Dick Grice said he had some inkling of the plans, but did not know the numbers. Grice wanted to know why this wasn’t brought to the Board of Supervisors before it was announced at a public pep rally.

However, Grice does favor this approach to education as it fills a need for students who do not plan to attend college by providing entry-level skills.

Board Chairman Rex Alphin didn’t know about Foods’ gift, but the plans for utilizing the Pruden money had been alluded to, he said.

A definite plan that doesn’t require any additional funding gives the Board comfort, Alphin said.

“If the plan follows through it will be good for the school system,” Alphin said.

Newport District Supervisor William McCarty also took issue with how the plans were revealed as he was unaware of the plans.

McCarty favors the career-oriented programs but the way it was rolled out seems “almost ram-roddish.”

“How does the Board say no to that,” he said, adding that the county is one of the most indebted in the state.

School administrators are scheduled to present the plans to the Board of Supervisors this Thursday.

Hulick said she has complete faith in Thornton and the division’s staff.

“I think Dr. Thornton is really good about keeping us in the loop,” said Hulick. “When we have questions he always answers them and gets back to us quickly.” 

“This is all new so I can’t tell you what the protocol is,” Hulick said regarding the Board’s involvement. “But (Thornton’s) very transparent.”

High school teachers and staff found out the same way students did, at the pep-rallies held Thursday and Friday.

“We had to keep this quiet, as we wanted to develop a partnership,” said Thornton at the Board meeting, referring to the donation from Smithfield Foods. “And so we also are going to slow this down for our staff at both high schools. They saw it like rapid-fire today at the assembly.”

Asked about the decision to keep the plans under wraps from the public, Thornton said that he wasn’t sure how much Foods would fund and didn’t want to somehow adversely affect their decision to donate, or put out plans the division couldn’t pay for. 

“The plan’s not in stone and we may shift based on comments from the public and comments from our staff,” said Thornton. “All (keeping the plans secret) did was push that feedback back.”

Regarding how involved the Board would be throughout the projects, Thornton said they’d “be informed all along the way.”

A “redesigned” high school experience

During the Board meeting Thursday, Thornton also gave a preview of a new academic schedule he plans to present in full this coming March.

The schedule will be for when the new facilities are completed, and involve students in grades nine and 11 taking all of their core classes in week one of the school year. During that time, students in grades 10 and 12 would take CTE classes from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. “for five straight days.”

“If (the students) are on site, that’s why we can open a restaurant, that’s why we can build things, that’s how they’ll learn this skill and be far ahead of anybody else,” Thornton said to the Board. “That’s a drastic redesign, and it’s not for every student.”

Students not in the program would go through the traditional schedule the schools currently have in place, according to Thornton.

“Currently, I don’t care if you do project-based learning or hand them a bunch of spreadsheets and do multiple choice, for some of our students, they’re going to do well in either environment,” Thornton said.  “But for far too many of our students, they only have one track, lined up in rows, and its time to redesign the high school experience.”

Thornton said he shared the idea with State Superintendent Steven R. Staples, who, according to Thornton, told him that the schedule was “exactly what the governor is talking about” regarding education.

“I do want the governor and the legislators to listen to what they’re saying and let us redesign it, and stop over-testing and stop putting all these regulations,” Thornton said at the meeting. “Take the chains off of us and let us educate our kids the way we know how and we can get the job done.”
Thornton received a standing ovation for his vision from the audience and Board during the meeting.

Staff writer Diana McFarland contributed to this report.



The cost breakdown:


Smithfield High School


Career building (without Makerspace): $4,196,457

Football field house: $1,429,569

Collaboration/recording studio: $155,466

Media center renovation: $604,174

Exercise/fitness room: $238,712

Cafeteria remodel: $153,000

•Funded by Smithfield Foods donation:

JROTC field house: $1,008,964

Makerspace: $460,900

Multi-use pavilion: $1,404,162

Total for Smithfield High School: $9,651,405


Windsor High School


Farm/barn: $972,713

Greenhouse (40’x80’): $268,800

Construction lab/athletic storage: $488,925

Outdoor science classroom: $30,000

Addition plaza/art courtyard: $60,352

Student outdoor dining area: $161,130

Cafeteria renovations: $144,360

Drama room renovation: $180,000

Media center renovation: $604,403

•Currently unfunded WHS projects:

Resurface track: $495,300

Baseball/softball field house: $391,450

Major new addition (locker rooms, cheering/wrestling/weight room, band/chorus room): $4,118,704

New parking (80 spaces, plus or minus): $353,010

New BMP’s (assume 3 small ones): $492,000

Total for Windsor High School: $8,761,146