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Jockeying at the top; schools staffing concerns; & a lost maternity ward



From left, former board Chair Linda Glavis, newly-elected Vice Chairman Dan Murray and Chairman Tony Carter ponder county business for 2018. Photos/ Roger Bianchini

FRONT ROYAL – On the morning of January 3, the Warren County Board of Supervisors rolled in the New Year with its first meeting of 2018. With the board seated in the front two rows of public seating, County Administrator Doug Stanley convened the meeting, calling for nominations for chair and vice-chair as the first order of business.

Dan Murray’s nomination of Tony Carter for chairman was seconded by last year’s chair, Linda Glavis – Carter served as vice chair last year. But what appeared to be a fairly routine transfer of procedural authority from one year to the next turned competitive when Archie Fox’s nomination of Murray for chairman was seconded by Tom Sayre.

After review of the meeting recording, the voice vote on the Carter nomination was recorded as 3-0 for (Carter, Glavis, Murray), with Fox and Sayre abstaining. The majority vote on the first nomination precluded the necessity of a vote on Fox’s nomination of Murray.

The political play to open the new year then continued with the nomination of a vice chair. Carter’s nomination of Murray was seconded by Glavis. Fox then nominated Sayre for vice chair, but did not receive a second. However, Board Clerk Emily Mounce pointed out to us after the meeting that no second on officer nominations is required.

However, there was again no need to vote on the Sayre nomination as the Murray nomination was approved by the same 3-0 margin (Carter, Glavis, Murray), again with Fox and Sayre abstaining.

That mini-drama out of the way, the board with its new officers – titled name tags in place – got down to business. That business included reports from VDOT, the accounting firm that did the financial audit of the County, and Warren County Public Schools Superintendent Greg Drescher.

Those assessments were:

· VDOT: State road maintenance, as well as preparation for winter weather events, continues as the nationwide Arctic chill continues into a second week. There is relief and early positive reports on the full opening of the South Fork Bridge on Front Royal’s north side; and hope the Morgan’s Ford low-water bridge will open ahead of its scheduled early June opening – weather dependent;

· Auditing firm Robinson, Farmer, Cox & Associates: The County continues to get high marks, including earning another Certificate of Excellence, on its financial status from the financial analysts contracted to audit that status;

· WCPS: While thanking the supervisors for their past investment in new school facilities over the past 12 years (new HS, renovated HS, renovated MS, new MS, Ressie Jeffries renovations), School Superintendent Drescher pointed to the need to maintain an experienced teaching staff inside the system’s facilities. Okay, this one’s going to take more than a couple of bulleted sentences.

School operations & costs
Drescher pointed to an increase of about 40% to 50% in teacher attrition over the past five years as a major contributing factor in school accreditation issues. And while those issues might have as much to do with an arbitrary government-imposed measuring system as anything (and yes, that was an unsolicited writer’s opinion), it is the system that exists and within which state public school systems must operate. And currently two schools have fallen below a 75% passing level necessary in English and Reading accreditation scores, if only by two or three points at 73% and 72%. A 70% level is required in math, science and history.

Pre-2013, Drescher reported an average annual loss of 30 to 40 teachers from a workforce of about 400. Over the five years from 2013 to 2017 that average attrition rate rose to 61 to 70 per year. And while lauding the positive contributions of new teachers into the system, Drescher noted that too many coming in at once can create a net negative as less experienced teachers gain the classroom skills the experienced counterparts they replaced had cultivated over their careers.

Drescher said that rather than a criticism of the county government, he was “simply pointing out a fact – we don’t keep enough skilled, experienced teachers year to year.” He said he was not asking the board to consider additional funding to compete with wealthier counties to the east like Loudoun; however he added, “We must compete with Winchester, Frederick and Shenandoah Counties.”

Contacted later, Drescher said an estimate of the revenue necessary to bring Warren County Public School teacher salaries into line with Winchester, Frederick and Shenandoah was $2.2 million. Currently each penny of county real estate tax generates about $403,000 of revenue.

Cold temps & 2-hour delays
If that didn’t lower the temperature in the room enough for a board already committed to formulating a tax-increase-free FY 2019 county budget, Drescher began his report on the public school system with a reference to the Arctic blast keeping temperatures here well under freezing, dipping into single digits at night. Those outside temperatures are creating a problem in maintaining comfortable temperatures inside some county schools, particularly the new middle school, Drescher observed, as familiarization with that school’s HVAC system in the school’s first operational winter proceed.

However, that the problem is more widespread than one school was indicated in a recorded phone message to parents from Assistant Superintendent Melody Sheppard at 1 p.m. Wednesday afternoon. About three-and-a-half hours after Drescher’s report Sheppard’s message informed parents that county public schools will return from the holiday break on a two-hour delay both Thursday and Friday, January 4 and 5. She reminded parents to see their children are dressed for the extremely low temperatures forecast through the week – and they may want to have several layers of indoor clothes on after shedding that heavy outerwear.

Carla Sayre leaves the podium after making her case to include a maternity ward in the plan for a new Warren Memorial Hospital.

No WMH maternity unit
Signs there might be an issue with a later agenda item – a request for a Letter of Support of Warren Memorial Hospital’s Certificate of Public Need to build a new hospital complex here – came during the Public Presentations, near the meeting’s outset. Carla Sayre, wife of Shenandoah District Supervisor Tom Sayre, appeared on behalf of the Front Royal Pregnancy Center. She expressed disappointment the plan submitted for the new Warren Memorial Hospital contains no maternity ward.

Mrs. Sayre worried over impacts on segments of the local population who might not easily be able to access Valley Health’s Winchester Medical Center some 25 miles away. She also worried at the likelihood women would end up giving birth in the new hospital’s emergency room, complicating that part of the hospital’s function.

During discussion of the Letter of Support of Valley Health’s plan to build a new hospital complex off Leach Run Parkway, tentatively slated for a 2020 opening, Supervisor Sayre agreed with his wife’s stance on behalf the pregnancy center. He pointed to a number of social media expressions of concern over the absence of a maternity ward from Valley Health’s plan.

“I concur,” he said of the social media opposition to the loss of a community-based maternity ward. Like his wife earlier, Supervisor Sayre worried that local women will end up giving birth in the new hospital’s emergency room. Sayre said he would vote for the Letter of Support for the new hospital, but hoped Valley Health would reconsider inclusion of a maternity ward in its plan. He reasoned that if birth numbers (333 annually) didn’t currently justify inclusion of a maternity ward, those numbers were likely to increase as the community continues to grow in coming years.

Dan Murray’s motion to approve the Letter of Support of Valley Health’s Certificate of Need to replace the 65-year-old North Shenandoah Avenue facility passed by a 5-0 voice vote.

A related story with additional detail of Valley Health’s rationale for exclusion of a maternity ward from the new Warren Memorial Hospital plan, potential options and the plan itself will be forthcoming this week.

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