American Dirt by Jeanine Cummings
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In person Book Circle Postponed until further notice.
The (FRWRC) Front Royal Women’s Resource Center is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization founded in 1996 to provide a support network for women in Warren County. Through monthly networking meetings, yearly grant presentations, special events, email connections and program activities, we have forged a link between women in our community.
Citizens Voice Frustration at Special School Board Meeting
The Warren County School Board convened a unique session on October 3, 2023, featuring an elongated time for public feedback.
Several parents raised concerns about safety issues, with bathrooms identified as a particular problem. One mother said her son was assaulted in a bathroom at Skyline Middle School, but administrators did not properly address it. She asserted the school has a bullying problem tied to the principal.
Other parents lamented increased fear-mongering and social media attacks against the schools, arguing issues are not unique to the county. A few speakers vouched for Superintendent Chris Ballinger’s leadership, with one teacher saying most staff support him despite a looming no-confidence vote from the board.
Tensions escalated when board member Melanie Salins was directly called out for previous “prison-like schools” comments. A teacher said Salins has not been supportive, and her words set staff back.
The public comment section displayed intense emotions around problems in the schools, proper solutions, and accountability. Speakers on all sides urged more open communication and collaboration between officials, educators, and parents to address challenges.
Several commenters referenced political agendas and national groups they felt were inappropriately influencing school policies. Others asked the board to focus on students’ health and safety first and foremost.
The session spotlighted just how deeply issues in Warren County schools are impacting families and dividing the community. As one speaker noted, cooperative solutions require stakeholders to work together instead of attacking each other.
Virginia budget puts millions toward support staff as schools struggle to find teachers
Virginia schools will be able to hire more support staff positions, something educators say is desperately needed amid a continued teacher shortage.
State lawmakers last month approved an amended budget that will direct $152 million toward these school support positions. The appropriations help boost the ratio of allotted support staff per teacher. The funding ratio increased from 21 support positions per 1,000 pupils to 24 per 1,000 pupils — though the older standard was 26 support positions, according to a July report by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission.
This funding has been capped for over a decade, following a $3.7 billion shortfall in the Great Recession-era budget that was never adjusted. The cap reduction resulted in a $331 million reduction in state education funding last year, according to JLARC.
Some positions limited by the cap include administrative, clerical, and operations staff, as well as technology and instructional professionals, according to the Virginia Association of School Superintendents website. Many education groups say the cap has resulted in the loss of thousands of support staff, even as enrollment grew.
The state’s Standards of Quality provide the foundation for public education, including minimum staffing needs. The standards typically under-calculate how much staff is actually needed, according to JLARC. Elimination of the support cap was a near-term recommendation in the report.
Virginia school divisions receive less K–12 funding per student than the national average, according to JLARC. Other states receive just under $2,000 more per student.
Chad Stewart, the Virginia Education Association’s policy analyst, said this cap was supposed to be temporary.
“An entire generation of kids have gone through their K-12 experience in the state of Virginia with far less support staff for helping their schools function and making sure that teachers weren’t overwhelmed with all these additional duties and could focus on teaching,” Stewart said.
When there is an inadequate amount of support staff in schools, teachers or other support staff have to fill multiple positions, according to Stewart.
“It takes them [teachers] away from the duties they’re trained to do, which is supporting students in different ways,” Stewart said.
Guidance counselors, in particular, have fulfilled multiple support positions, such as monitoring cafeterias or clerical work in the office, according to Stewart. A law took effect July 1 to ensure counselors spend at least 80% of their time doing direct counseling of students.
Teacher Karl Knoche has worked at Virginia Beach City Public Schools since 2007. He has taught government and economics at First Colonial High School since 2014.
“All the support staff at my school does a great job of helping teachers and students, and I feel that I can go to them with any problems,” Knoche stated in an email.
Knoche has extra duties such as monitoring students between classes, during lunch, and before school, which can be “time-consuming,” he stated.
Teachers seem to have more responsibilities outside of the classroom than when he first started teaching, according to Knoche.
“We have been fortunate at my school to be fairly well staffed,” Knoche stated. “We have had issues with having enough custodians, but that isn’t due to the lack of jobs, but the lack of interest in the jobs.”
Virginia leaders have grappled with teaching vacancies in recent years. The General Assembly committed to increasing compensation with 5% pay increases over three consecutive fiscal years starting in 2022, according to JLARC.
However, the pay increases may not address low or no compensation in previous years, coupled with inflation the past two years, the report stated. Additionally, not every school division could fund the full 5% increase because their locality does not provide enough matching funds “for employees not recognized through the SOQ formula.”
Virginia ranks No. 22 for teacher pay, which is an average salary of about $61,000, according to the National Education Association.
The state had over 3,500 unfilled teaching positions in the 2022-23 school year. Elementary school teachers accounted for the most vacancies, followed by special education, according to data from the Virginia Department of Education. Special education positions at 5.8% had the highest percentage of unfilled positions, followed by world language and then elementary school teachers.
The VDOE announced a strategic plan in 2022 to improve teacher recruitment and retention. The goals are to make it easier for qualified teachers to be hired, consider more candidates eligible to fulfill open positions, and reinforce strategies that maintain a thriving workplace, such as programs focused on teacher retention.
The use of appropriated funds will vary by district, but the intent is that local school divisions will use funds for support staff positions, according to a VDOE email response.
The governor and lawmakers have removed close to “three-quarters of the support positions cap” in the past two sessions, the VDOE stated.
By Alyssa Hutton
Capital News Service
Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.
Town Council Discusses Speed Cameras and Questionable Lease and License Agreement at Work Session
On Monday, October 2, at 7 p.m. at Town Hall, the Front Royal Town Council met at a work session to discuss an assortment of issues they will be facing at their October 23 meeting, when they will hold public hearings and are expected to vote on these matters.
Several items were briefly addressed, like budget reallocations, appointments to ESAC, and maintaining the authenticity of the Downtown Historic District. However, the most discussed items on the work session agenda were the Public School zone speed cameras that Blue Line Solutions will provide for Front Royal if council votes in favor of the public safety initiative brought forward by the Town Police Department, as well as an issue of vacating a public right-of-way in an area where council previously made a decision to grant a lease and license agreement over a parcel that in the eyes of Town Attorney George Sonnett was not the Town’s legal right to grant.
Council member Wayne Sealock feels that the speed cameras have been a long time in coming. “Nitpicking” over the details of the contract with Blue Line Solutions has delayed what he considers a pressing issue. “If they were going to try to mess us over with something,” he said about Blue Line, “all these other jurisdictions wouldn’t be doing it.” He went on to say, “I’m not going to be able to go home and lay my head down if a child gets hit on Criser Road trying to cross the road by a speeding vehicle, and God forbid gets put in a wheelchair, or even worse gets put on Prospect Hill Cemetery.”
Most of the discussion about the speed cameras focused on defining the Town’s role in making them effective, such as that the Town makes “reasonable” efforts to collect the civil fines, which has some built-in ambiguity in terms of the language being used. However, Town Attorney Sonnett said, “Reasonable is what we think’s reasonable, which means in good faith, that we make good faith efforts to collect.” Mayor Lori Cockrell tried to get as much clarity on this point as possible. Will it become the Town’s responsibility to collect fines after the second notice? And at that point, will it be the Town’s prerogative to determine whether a good faith effort has been made?
Again, the Town exercises the power to apply the law to the needs of the community. The cameras covering school zones will be active when school zones are active. “The law says: when it’s an active school zone,” Sonnett explained, “and we’re going to determine when that is.” Furthermore, if there is an issue with the equipment, it will be Blue Line’s responsibility to address the problem, except in an extreme case, like a fallen tree. The police department will play a key role in using this resource to keep Front Royal and especially its school-age children safe.
In the closing moments of the discussion about cameras, council member Duane “Skip” Rogers said, “This is important, and it will be, overall, good for our community.” This matter is expected to come to a vote at the Council’s meeting on October 23.
In discussing the potential vacation of a portion of North Royal Avenue and an alley between North Royal Avenue and Virginia Avenue, Sonnett explained to the council his interpretation of the law pertaining to lease and license agreements, where an agreement was granted in May 2021 by the Town to an individual who subsequently laid down gravel for parking in that vicinity. In Sonnett’s eyes, because the Town does not hold exclusive right-of-way over that access, where a public right-of-way exists, that agreement was misplaced.
“It reports to grant a lease and a license to an area of land within the town right-of-way,” Sonnett explained, observing, “This is a public right-of-way. The Town doesn’t have exclusive use of this parcel. The Town’s use is in conjunction with the public use. So, the Town doesn’t have exclusive use to convey to anybody. That’s the problem. It purports to convey something the Town doesn’t have.” The agreement could be terminated on sixty days’ short notice, he told the council.
“That doesn’t mean I’m correct; it’s just my opinion, but I stand by my opinion,” the town attorney said. He qualified another agreement, under which a fence has been built in one of the areas affecting the proposed vacation, as an encroachment that is legal.
It is important to think separately about the proposed vacation and the agreements over parcels being scrutinized, Sonnett said. As Lori Cockrell pointed out, one must confront A and B before proceeding to C. In other words, the problem would be solved if these parcels, abutting certain property owners, were sold to those property owners, but because of the pre-existing public right-of-way, the public access must be vacated before the parcel that features the gravel parking can be sold.
The council concluded that the issue of vacation can be addressed with a public hearing and voted upon at the October 23 meeting, while the sixty-day notice can be passed in the consent agenda without a public hearing. Then, with the public right-of-way being vacated, interested parties would have the opportunity to purchase the parcels in question.
Council also discussed its upcoming Town-County Liaison Committee Meeting on October 19 to be held at the Warren County Government Center, then moved to go into closed session to discuss issues pertaining to personnel, McKay Springs, HEPTAD v. Town Council, and the proposed agreement on resurrection of the old Youth Center building with Reaching Out Now, Inc.
Blue Ridge Wildlife Center Patient of the Week: Woodland Box Turtle
Can a turtle get an ear infection?
Although the weather is cooling, we are continuing to get many turtles in for care. On Saturday alone, we received and performed surgery on FIVE new turtle patients!
One of those patients was this woodland box turtle who came into care with a severe aural abscess (an ear infection that causes internal swelling). These abscesses can sometimes be caused by trauma, but many are associated with vitamin A deficiency, which changes the tissues that make up the ear lining and predisposes these turtles to develop abscesses.
In captive turtles with abscesses, this is often due to a lack of dietary vitamin A. In the wild, some pesticides are known to alter the metabolism of vitamin A and have been linked to these abscesses.
While ear infections in mammals often travel from the mouth to the ear canal via the eustachian tube, turtles lack an open, external ear canal. When an infection reaches their ear, it can’t escape, leading to the accumulation of pus with a firm, cheese-like consistency.
This unusual characteristic means that pus doesn’t readily drain back into their mouth, resulting in the formation of a substantial pocket within the ear. Without treatment, these abscesses and will often cause turtles to stop eating, which could lead to death.
This patient is healing well and will be spending the winter at our Center, and we expect him to be ready for release on May 1st!
Where do turtles go in the winter?
Woodland box turtles undergo a period of dormancy called brumation during the winter months, characterized by reduced activity and metabolic slowdown in response to colder temperatures and reduced daylight.
They seek shelter in burrows or natural cavities, becoming lethargic and unresponsive to stimuli, conserving energy and not eating or drinking. While they continue to breathe, it’s at a much slower rate, and they can absorb oxygen through their skin.
As the weather warms in spring, they gradually emerge, becoming more active and resuming their usual activities.
In our area, wild turtles brumate in the fall and winter months which is why the law in Virginia does not allow rehabilitators to release reptile patients between October 1 – April 30. Luckily, we were able to release nine turtles on September 30!
Any turtle we can’t release before October, or who came to us within that time, overwinters with us at the Center. We keep them in a warm and humid room so they don’t fall into brumation and can continue to be rehabbed.
Looking for an easy way to help native wildlife? Become a monthly BRWC donor! For as little as $5/month, you can provide year-round, sustainable support that helps us fulfill our mission.
R-MA Athlete of the Week: Michael Jr. DeMato
Celebrating a local Warren County family and cadet! We’re thrilled to announce this week’s Athlete of the Week, none other than the incredible Michael Jr. DeMato! Michael attended Mountain Laurel Montessori school during his younger days. Mom, Meg DeMato is currently a Middle School Teacher & Co-Director at Mountain Laurel Montessori, and dad, Michael DeMato is the R-MA Music Director. At just the second match of his high school career, Michael showcased his remarkable talent by becoming the leading runner for the Men’s Cross Country team!
In a thrilling performance, Michael and his teammates pushed their limits and helped secure a fantastic second-place finish at the GPAC meet in Charlottesville! Michael, your dedication, hard work, and sportsmanship are truly commendable. Keep reaching for the stars and inspiring us all!
Learn more about Randolph-Macon Academy: www.rma.edu
Maryland’s push to phase out gas-powered car sales by 2035
When Andrea Crooms drove her rental electric vehicle (EV) to a meeting she was late to in Calvert County, she knew there were electric vehicle chargers that took a long time to charge along her route but did not want to spend five to 10 minutes finding adequate charging. Instead, she had to find a charger near her house.
“There’s lots of dead zones,” Crooms, the director of the Prince George’s County Department of the Environment, said. “The level of planning that you have to do to drive across the state right now is not really reasonable.”
Maryland’s Advanced Clean Car Regulations took effect on Sept. 18 in response to Gov. Wes Moore’s announcement of his support to phase out gas-powered passenger car and light-truck sales by 2035.
The regulation is similar to California’s ban to get rid of gas-powered cars in the next 15 years.
According to the Maryland Department of Transportation, the state has seen an increase in electric vehicles every year. However, counties across Maryland are struggling to develop the charging infrastructure the growth requires.
There are 81,000 registered electric vehicles in Maryland, though MDOT plans to have at least 300,000 registered electric vehicles by 2025, Deron Lovaas, chief of environment and sustainable transportation at MDOT, told Capital News Service. To help with the increase, the state is working with local jurisdictions on a tool that maps existing charging stations and where new charging stations can be built.
Over the last five years, EV registrations in Maryland have increased by 742% from August 2017 to August 2023, Jim Joyner, a spokesperson with MDOT, said in an email. Montgomery County has the most electric vehicles registered, and Somerset has the least EVs as of August 2023.
In Maryland, there are over 1,400 EV charging stations with almost 4,000 charging ports, 819 of which are DC fast-charging ports, the quickest and most powerful option, Joyner said. Baltimore City has the most EV charging stations, and Dorchester County has the least.
“There’s a dance that has to happen between the vehicles out there and charging infrastructure,” Lovaas said. “People have to feel like they can charge reliably across Maryland’s road network.”
In Montgomery County, 3% of vehicles in the county are electric, but 15% of all newly registered vehicles have been electric over the last 12 months, Brian Booher, the senior planning specialist for zero emissions for the Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection, said.
The department offers benefits for people who purchase an electric vehicle and is also working to expand EV charging, Booher said.
At-home charging and the reliability of chargers are the county’s biggest challenges.
“This electric vehicle revolution is happening,” Booher said. “We’re going to need to be proactive in making sure that there’s enough charging infrastructure.”
Howard County is working to increase EV charging stations in future homes and multi-residential units, Howard County Executive Calvin Ball said, with a goal of at least one EV charging station for every 25 units.
The county has a goal to increase public charging to 400 charging stations by 2030 and expand to 2,600 chargers by 2045, Ball said and is working on a geographic information system to identify areas that lack adequate access to charging stations.
“We’re trying to make sure that we are having the diversity level of charging,” Ball said. “It’s going to be a balancing act from what we have in place now and what our energy goals are.”
Prince George’s County is focused on making public facilities a place to charge, Crooms said. One of the challenges is working with the private sector for private charging.
In 2021, P.G. County passed a law that requires gas stations to have EV charging stations if they do not already have zoning approval, Crooms said. Another law requires new buildings and multi-unit housing with parking garages and spaces to have EV charging.
“We have such a diverse group of folks,” Crooms said. “Figuring out how charging is going to be fair and equitable in those areas where we have renters or where we have folks who simply don’t have a dedicated parking space is complicated.”
Frederick County encourages residents to take advantage of state and federal incentives, Dawn Ashbacher, climate and energy manager at Frederick County, said. The county can help residents connect to resources.
The county updated its ordinance to require new homes to have EV charging, Ashbacher said. Part of the issue is charging at multi-unit housing, existing buildings, and disadvantaged communities.
The National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Program, created under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, gives states funding for charging infrastructure across highways, Lovaas said. The state will receive $57.5 million over the next five years to improve charging across the state.
“We’re going to see a lot more infrastructure built,” Booher said. “It’s going to make the reality of owning an electric vehicle possible for a lot of people.”
By Ilana Williams
Capital News Service