Supervisors question urgency of $10 million request

Published 1:42 pm Wednesday, March 8, 2017

By Diana McFarland

Managing editor

After listening to reasons why Isle of Wight County should borrow $10 million to fund an in-house career and technical education program, the Board of Supervisors questioned the urgency, the lack of collaboration with Paul D. Camp Community College and the need to fund the entire program at once.

If the Board borrows $10 million, it will make Isle of Wight the most indebted county in the state and there are too many unknowns looming in the future, said Windsor District Supervisor Joel Acree about the proposed 20-year loan.

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Smithfield Supervisor Dick Grice said he didn’t understand the reasoning behind an immediate and complete rollout of the program.

“There’s trade-offs that can be worked out here,” said Grice, and questioned the notion that high school students would graduate prepared to snag a job with a “family sustainable wage.” 

“Let’s walk before we run,” he said.{mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

The Isle of Wight County School Board and Board of Supervisors held a joint work session Thursday to discuss schools Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton’s plan to add a wide range of CTE programs at Smithfield and Windsor high schools.

The meeting also included a visit from Dr. Dan Lufkin, president of Paul D. Camp Community College, who suggested the schools and college look at ways to collaborate and save money — given that the college already has many of the programs being proposed by Thornton.

The School Board last year decided to stop its association with Pruden, which offers a variety of career and technical programs at a yearly cost of $952,000 to Isle of Wight County.

Beginning in the fall, Isle of Wight County students will no longer have access to CTE programs at The Pruden Center for Industry and Technology in Suffolk.

The problem, according to Thornton, is that while Isle of Wight has 220 slots at Pruden, only 140 students utilize the program, and of those, about 65 stay in long enough to complete a certificate program.

Instead, Thornton is proposing the Board borrow $10 million to create an in-house program offering nursing, culinary arts, logistics, mechatronics, building trades, welding, cosmetology and agriculture — as well as renovated media centers, cafeterias, Makerspaces and a fitness center.

The debt service on the 20-year loan would be paid from the money that goes to Pruden every year, Thornton said.

“This is a wise financial plan,” said Thornton, after touting his financial acumen.

Thornton said it’s possible to collaborate with PDCCC, but the county is looking at a “different order.”

“They’re not going to get on a bus to Franklin,” said Thornton of Isle of Wight students, and said the major impediments for students attending Pruden are scheduling conflicts and travel.

On the flip side, Isle of Wight County students travel daily to half-day programs at the New Horizons Governor’s School for Science and Technology in Hampton and the Governor’s School for the Arts in Norfolk.

On the Peninsula, students from six school districts, including Gloucester and Williamsburg-James City County, travel to attend CTE classes offered by the New Horizons Career and Technical Centers in Hampton and Newport News.

Classes at New Horizons are two hours and 20 minutes. The students spend the remainder of their day at their home school, according to the center’s website.

Lufkin pointed out that PDCCC already has a good deal of equipment necessary for the programs that Thornton is proposing. Lufkin also said that 99 percent of new jobs require some sort of post-secondary education — not necessarily a degree, but some sort of certificate program.

“There’s no panacea … we can identify and address this together,” said Lufkin, and went on to discuss the equipment and programs already existing at PDCCC, their costs and how they align with what Thornton is proposing.

Lufkin said he wanted an opportunity to discuss ways to collaborate.

Thornton complained that PDCCC never called Isle of Wight, even when it was announced last year that the school district was pulling out of Pruden. Thornton said he had called PDCCC that day (Thursday) about the issue.

Acree said Thornton’s belated call was disturbing and the schools should have been in contact with PDCCC before this.

There’s a certain level of frustration with PDCCC staff that the School Board is trying to do what they’re doing, Acree said.

Grice said this proposal was a “splendid opportunity,” but “we just don’t have it to the extent it should be.” Grice said he wants to see the program move forward, but with some “testing.”

A media center and fitness center doesn’t get anyone a job, he said.

Thornton said one reason for paying for the entire package at once is that responses to a request for proposals on a Makerspace last year came in too high. The contractors said the job was too small, hence the high price, he said.

Newport District Supervisor William McCarty said he “loves the plan,” but it needs to be weighed against the looming maintenance issues and the burden of a 20-year debt.

The same urgency is needed for maintenance, McCarty said.

Thornton said his administration has devised a maintenance plan.

Grice pointed out that school maintenance was expected to cost the county about $5 million over the next two years.

Hardy District Supervisor Rudolph Jefferson said he sees a good deal of duplication with PDCCC and that the school division and college needs to work together. He also wanted to know if Newport News Shipbuilding and the Surry power station had been consulted about the proposed programs.

It’s not automatic that someone will graduate with a well-paying job, Jefferson said.

Newport District School Board Representative Vicky Hulick said that if the students go to Suffolk and Franklin, then it’s the same thing as before — no flexibility. Hulick said the public and businesses had been consulted and is sorry the Board feels “blindsided.”

Hulick was referring to the surprise — and very public — pep rally-style announcement of the proposed CTE program, which was attached to Smithfield Foods’ donation of $3 million to build a JROTC building, a multi-use facility and Makerspace at Smithfield High School. Foods’ donation is not contingent on the proposed CTE program.

Carrsville School Board Representative Jackie Carr said it was necessary to bring the CTE program to the home schools for those who may not even see finishing high school as an option.

School administrators said about 40 percent of high school graduates do not go on to attend college and alternatives must be provided for those students.

Board Chairman Rex Alphin said the supervisors would have preferred more collaboration on such an undertaking, but did appreciate Thornton bringing the Board a flat operating budget for fiscal 2018.

As for the $10 million CTE program, “It’s a risk, it’s very, very risky, but I’m a farmer, I’m used to risk,” he said.  

The discussion will continue at the March 16 Board of Supervisors meeting.


What is a Makerspace?

 A Makerspace is a place where students with similar interests can gather to work on projects while sharing ideas, equipment and knowledge. The push for adding Makerspaces to Isle of Wight County schools was part of the new “Project-Based” and “Deeper Learning” initiative proposed by Schools Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton and implemented last fall. Project-based learning is a teaching method where students work for an extended period of time on a problem, question or challenge. Recently, Isle of Wight County schools have been hosting student “Expos” that invited parents and the public to view projects created through the new teaching method.  {/mprestriction}