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Ronald Reagan asked a very famous question “are you better now than you were 4 years ago?”

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The wisdom of our founding state and local fathers incorporated into state laws and local charters the value of having nonpartisan elections. It was their intent to elect quality candidates that would focus on local issues and not party dogma (which includes our school boards) in building the quality of life in our individual communities They felt that at this level that partisan politics would only repress the communities’ ability to make good community decisions.

With the increased activity and influence of the WCRC endorsing candidates in our nonpartisan elections, are we better now in Front Royal than we were 4 years ago? What has the town council done to improve the lives of its citizens in that time? Over the last four years the Council has:

  • Focused excess energy toward state and national concerns rather than on local town problems
  • Ignored or delayed town financial commitments, creating a hostile environment among town and county officials (failure to pay for the new police station)
  • Participated in activities that could be perceived to be conflicts of interest in their business relationships, causing a decrease in town tax revenue
  • Fostered a hostile work environment by threats of staff terminations or actual firings
  • Spent taxpayer dollars on useless lawsuits that went nowhere
  • Reduced town revenue by eliminating our own Tourism department and outsourcing to an outside firm
  • Failed to pursue a long-term solution to our water problems, stalling future growth of jobs and housing

Most of the elected Town Council were endorsed and financially supported by the WCRC. In the 2021 election cycle, this unfortunately has been extended to school board candidates as well.

Every day we become aware of more situations that confirm the influence of party politics, demonstrating the disingenuous character of the WCRC endorsed candidates past and present

It is my hope that the people in our community will choose the most qualified people running for these nonpartisan positions of which we have some great non-endorsed individuals running.

I have always been told that I am a glass-half-full guy but my expectations from our community changing are very low. Hope I am wrong.

Michael Graham
Front Royal, Virginia

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Commentary: Take no shortcuts in boosting police agencies to full strength

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Police cars in Charlottesville. (Ned Oliver / Virginia Mercury)

 

Consider all the ways police departments around Virginia are working to fill vacancies in their ranks:

Offering signing bonuses. Boosting salaries. Attending military, community, and college career fairs. Making it simpler for service members to transition from their military branch to patrol cars. Hyping careers in law enforcement on social media platforms. Recruiting outside their immediate metropolitan areas.

And so on, according to department officials who I interviewed this week.

Yawning gaps persist, however, for many agencies – especially the larger ones.

A Norfolk Police Department spokesman told me the agency has 205 openings among its 733 authorized sworn officer positions – or 28% of the force. Fairfax County has roughly 190 vacancies for a force of 1,600, nearly 12%. Richmond reported more than 150 police vacancies in October; I couldn’t get an update this week.

Recruitment of minority officers has been challenging for years, as I’ve previously written.

Shortfalls among officers of all races existed even before the pandemic began in early 2020 and the videotaped police killing of George Floyd happened that spring. Both of those factors, though, contributed to the current crisis.

Police officers have also faced unprecedented scrutiny since the advent of cellphone cameras, though that’s not necessarily bad. Wrongdoing has come to light because of videotaped footage from citizens.

The Washington Post reported Fairfax County police leaders are hoping a public safety cadet program will, eventually, help stem shortfalls there. The program provides leadership and career training for high school students and other young adults ages 14 to 21 who are interested in law enforcement.

Such policing shortages pose threats to cities and counties. They reduce the ability of officers to patrol neighborhoods and respond quickly to robberies, shootings and other serious crimes. They make it tougher to investigate incidents and do proactive community policing.

“This is a nationwide problem,” Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based think tank, told me Wednesday.

For example, Seattle police lost 180 officers in 2020 and dozens more by mid-2021. The department reported a 30-year low in the number of officers in 2022, partly because of retirements and resignations.

“The No. 1 issue in policing right now is staffing,” Wexler added that departments compete with each other for a limited number of candidates.

In the quest to fill vacancies, though, departments shouldn’t skimp on completing applicants’ background checks and psychological tests. There can be no shortcuts. Police officers wield tremendous power over citizens and should pass the requisite evaluations of fitness and judgment before hitting the streets.

They also must uphold the law while not exhibiting bias toward people simply because of their race, sexual orientation, or the neighborhood they live in.

Nor should they risk sedition or treason because they falsely believe an election went to the wrong guy.

One of the more alarming developments following the U.S. Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021, was the involvement of police officers and military personnel in the mob. Some of those officers hailed from the commonwealth; at least two were convicted for their actions that day.

NPR, which tracks criminal cases related to the Capitol attack, says more than 900 people have been charged so far. It reports that at least 14% of those charged appear “to have ties to the military or to law enforcement.”

An American Civil Liberties Union official noted extremism among people who carry a gun and a badge threatens police agencies and residents. Rachel Grinspan, director of law enforcement policy and civil rights for the Anti-Defamation League, wrote this year: “It is critical to ensure that law enforcement officers are prepared and willing to serve and protect everyone in their communities.”

“The actions of one individual can erode community trust and tarnish the reputation of an entire department,” Grinspan said in Police Chief magazine.

Most police officers want to serve their citizens and lock up the bad guys. They make life-and-death decisions. They want to get home safely at night. They know they’re under a microscope from politicians and residents alike.

All of those factors make it difficult for departments to recruit nowadays. No question.

Rushing the process, though, would make a tough situation even worse. The people on patrol must want to be there, uphold the law and treat residents respectfully.

 

by Roger Chesley, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Commentary: Cozy Christmas Haunts

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Christmas has arrived in a heaving rush and I’m plotting a means to get my Christmas on proper before it vanishes in a few weeks. This is not my first time getting surprised by the holiday season. That said, kindly allow me a couple minutes to share a trade secret to jump start your way back into the spirit of the season. First off, you must get off your fourth point of contact – as the paratroopers call it – and set about soaking up a bit of KrisKringleness.

The cool thing about living in Northwestern Virginia is it feels like Christmas here – not like further south – where flip flops and a sweatshirt comprises the local Christmas attire. A cozy fireplace with a hot toddy is a good way of getting started. Of course, you don’t need to leave home for that, but suffice it to say, you need to step out and feel Christmas and see the lights. Those are the times you’ll remember.

Photos / LanceLot Lynk

I’ll not belabor the options. Essentially there are 2 cool places that are within reach that will do the trick. As luck would have it, they are on the same highway: The Hunters Head Tavern in Upperville, and the Red Fox Tavern in Middleburg. Both are within an hour of Front Royal.  Let’s start with my favorite – The Red Fox Tavern in Middleburg.  For the historian in the family – you’ll be interested to know that this is the longest running Tavern in the United States. Meaning the tavern has always been a tavern and not a residence or other type venue dating back to 1728. It served as a frequent stop and halfway tavern between Washington D.C. and Winchester in the early 18th and 19th centuries. Since it worked for the old, I’ve used it as a suitable meeting location too. One of my British friends is a commander of the Royal Fusiliers from London. He visits the states often and wanted to see something other than the capital region. I prescribed the Red Fox Inn and after researching it a bit online – he went a step further and booked a room at the Inn. Envious.

The Inn is very much mid-Atlantic twang and Colonial (by way of Boston) cool. The Fox resides along Hwy 50 in the cradle of Mosby’s Confederacy – adrift in equestrian country. A couple of Confederate cavaliers, JEB Stuart, and the celebrated Gray Ghost Mosby – once planned strategy there. Prior to that, George Washington was said to have stopped by in the early 1700s, as did First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy during her husband’s tenure in the White House, circa early 1960s.

Middleburg is the perfect little town and rendezvous location for link ups with your Washington friends and it celebrates Christmas in a big way. The first weekend of December was the annual Christmas parade this year. But I digress.

At three in the afternoon, we met up at the Red Horse Tavern in Middleburg to have a shorty and reacquaint. We needed to kill a couple hours before our 5:30 reservation. Subsequently, we sought refuge in my vehicle and I regaled him with the play by play of the local Civil War battles. Being a military man, he was the proper captured audience. So, as we road around, I spouted forth all I knew about Colonel John Mosby’s exploits. As darkness set in, we retreated to the Christmas Shop to shop a little bit for our wives. I located a really cool ‘Rauchermann’ or ‘German smoker man.’ In this case it was a Smoking Santa.’ The Smoking Santa is a German Christmas ornament that few Americans know about. It is quite the cool little addition to your Christmas motif and guaranteed to garner more than passive attention from your guests. After a short venture past the many decorated shops, we moved across the street for our dinner reservations at the Red Fox.

I had previously alerted the hosts that we desired a table beside the fireplace. They did not disappoint. We both ordered the three-course meal option with roasted duck and wine by the fire. Three hours later and all talked out, we bid farewell and I departed back to the Shenandoah Valley. My friend enjoyed a couple more tonics with the barkeeps. I’m sure his rich English accent and storytelling prowess kept them entertained till he turned in that night. An evening in Middleburg during the Christmas season topped by dinner at the Red Fox is tough to beat. Next story entails a Christmas evening at the Hunters Head Tavern.

My wife likes the Hunters Head Tavern in Upperville – principally because she comes from Penarth, Wales – in the Vale of Glamorgan by the sea. As I soon discovered, this quaint little tavern reminds her of home. And why not, Hunter’s Head is a colorful English pub with a variety of authentic meals in a nice little historic hamlet.

Restaurant critics are supposed to be impartial, but I can’t help feeling some kindred spirit in this tavern. You may detect an extra cup or two of enthusiasm in my voice when she mentioned getting an uber for the trip out. Translation – another round please. This English pub is tucked in an old house in Northern Virginia, and focuses on humanely raised, locally sourced classic dishes. And don’t think I’m not going to mention the cool Civil War history that abounds here as well. Upperville has quite a bit of Civil War folklore. Unfortunately, I was not permitted to drag Sonja around anymore battlefield outings, no matter how well I spun the yarn. “What are we doing out here in this field” had been a constant theme over the years. She had been duped many times before but at this stage in our lives, she was too well seasoned to fall for it again. Besides this was supposed to be a romantic Christmas outing at one of our favorite haunts. Too bad – so much cool history, so little time. Next time perhaps.

Once again, the tavern hosts understood our wishes and sat us perfectly next to a raging fire. And that was a good thing as my wife was sure the temperature was a mark above zero (Celsius that is). In Southern parlance that would be roughly a bit above freezing. In short, it was rather frigid out and we were frozen. As luck would have it, we were the taverns’ first patrons that evening.

The bar tender hooked us up with a piping hot coffee liqueur drink with Baileys and we settled in for some ole fashion date night. Very nice. When the fire started waning, the attractive barmaid came out and threw a couple more logs on the fire. I offered my assistance, but my wife stifled my exuberance – leaving the young lady to her own skills in fireplace maintenance.

And when it was time for vittles, the kitchen was equally skilled in the principals of getting plates on the table while the food was still hot. After all, that is the trick isn’t it. That feat was even more impressive when we looked around and found ourselves surrounded by fellow patrons. The place was packed. And for a moment there, I felt as if we had stepped back in time. It’s as if we were part of a secret colonial meeting to unseat the crown. We had apparently been engrossed in serious conversation that impaired our situational awareness. Snap out it, man. Clearly, I was the only one that experienced this sensation. Could it be that I’d let myself be over-served? Surely not.

All that aside, it was quite the treat to enjoy fine English fare in a cozy Christmas setting where you can relax and enjoy the season. Hunter’s Head Tavern was built in the 1700s and remains quaint, decorated in period accessories and enticing. The fire and the atmosphere harken you back to a Dickens’ novel or more so – to the days of the American Revolution. The old home itself, is in a nice, wooded area which is even more scenic at Christmas time. In short, it’s very reminiscent of ole town Williamsburg. After a night cap – we summoned our ride and took the scenic route by the horse farms enjoying the Christmas lights along the way. My wife casually mentioned under her breath, “For a moment there, I could have sworn we were surrounded by colonial militia in there.” Ha! More wine I say. I highly recommend this ole haunt – especially during the Christmas season.

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Commentary: Let’s not whitewash the racism from American history

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Heart Mountain towers at the end of “F” Street, the main thoroughfare of the Heart Mountain Relocation Center.(Tom Parker / National Archives at College Park, public domain)

 

My father grew up on a farm in San Jose that my grandfather had to put in the names of his two oldest sons, because California banned migrants from owning land. The reason behind the state’s Alien Land Law was racism.

It was racism that enabled my Japanese American relatives to immigrate to the United States in the first place: A young nation desperate for workers had banned the immigration of all Chinese in 1882 and looked to Japan as a source of cheap labor.

Finally, it was racism that led the federal government to expel my parents’ families from California in 1942 and incarcerate them in a concentration camp in Wyoming for the duration of World War II.

But if the Virginia Board of Education dominated by appointees of Gov. Glenn Youngkin has its way, the racism at the root of many incidents in American history will fade away.

The recent release of Standards of Learning for history and social science for Virginia does include the Japanese American incarceration during World War II but avoids mentioning the racism that led to it.

It’s true that 125,000 people of Japanese descent, two-thirds of them U.S. citizens, were forced from their homes and businesses on the West Coast in reaction to the imperial Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. But the conditions that enabled that expulsion, which ruined the lives of countless families, had existed for years before then.

Politicians and business leaders had fulminated against immigrants for years, blaming them without evidence for bringing disease and threatening the livelihoods of white Americans. Some Caucasian residents placed signs on their homes that proclaimed that “this is a white man’s neighborhood.” Others resented the success of the Japanese American farmers who coaxed rich harvests out of marginal land.

Pearl Harbor provided them the pretext to eliminate the Asian immigrants they had resented for years.

My father’s family had to sell their 14.25-acre farm in San Jose for just pennies on the dollar. My oldest uncle, who was a doctor in the U.S. Army, had to leave his base in Arkansas to sign the papers at a notary public in a nearby town.

My mother’s father lost his store in Oakland, and they lost their home in San Francisco. It took them years to recoup what they had lost.

The government never presented any evidence that Japanese Americans posed a security threat on the West Coast. In Hawaii, where the Pearl Harbor attack actually happened and where Japanese Americans were a large plurality of the population, there was no large-scale incarceration.

On the mainland, where there were large populations of German and Italian nationals, there was no mass incarceration of those two Caucasian communities.

After the war, my parents’ families rebuilt their lives and finances. My parents assimilated into white-dominated society. As a child in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I knew very few Asian Americans. I captained the cheerleading squad, led the forensics team and eventually became a lawyer. I was the first Asian American president of the DC Bar.

It was only after my mother’s death in 2005 that I learned of her commitment to build a museum on the site of where she, my father and their families were incarcerated in Heart Mountain, Wyoming. Now, I chair the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, which operates a museum on the site.

We remain committed to making sure what happened there never happens again. We often host school groups at our museum to tell them about our history. For three years running, we have received National Endowment for the Humanities grants to bring 72 teachers a year from around the country to Heart Mountain so they can teach their students about what really happened.

Some of those teachers have been from Virginia, which has its own tragic history with race. We teach them and others that racism was a huge part of what led to the Japanese American incarceration.

That will not change, regardless of what Virginia’s board concludes, because history doesn’t bend for a politician’s agenda. I urge board members to reconsider how they examine this and other critical parts of our great nation’s long and often-troubled past.

 

By Shirley Ann Higuchi
Guest Column, Virginia Mercury

Shirley Ann Higuchi is a Washington, D.C., attorney and past president of the District of Columbia Bar. She chairs the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation (www.heartmountain.org), which runs an interpretive center at the site of the camp where her parents were imprisoned. She is the author of “Setsuko’s Secret: Heart Mountain and the Legacy of the Japanese American Incarceration,” released in 2020 by the University of Wisconsin Press. 


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Commentary: If times are so good and Virginia’s flush with tax money, why do we feel so poor?

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Gov. Glenn Youngkin ceremonially signed Virginia’s latest two-year spending plan at an event in Short Pump in June 2022. (Kate Masters / Virginia Mercury)

 

Sometimes it just hurts to watch the constant yammering about the economy, particularly on those dry-as-dust cable networks like CNBC and Bloomberg, with anchors and analysts conversing in Wall Street jargon and wringing their hands over inflation and every stumble and leap in the markets.

It takes a toll. The economy – specifically inflation – was the top concern of 31% of those who voted in the midterm elections last month, just ahead of abortion at 27%, according to national exit polling.

Faith in the economy tanked from March through May of 2020 with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. And it was warranted. The deadly new virus to which humans had no acquired immunity and for which we lacked vaccines set off a wave of panic with an apocalyptic feel.

Hospitals were overrun. Unemployment hit levels unseen since the Great Depression. Supply chains disintegrated. Businesses, large and small, failed, in many cases wiping out families’ livelihoods and savings. Governments imposed moratoria on foreclosures and evictions during the depth of the crisis in hopes of forestalling, if not preventing, massive homelessness.

Many of those hit hardest, people on the margins financially, have yet to recover. Federal infusions of cash into the economy provided a safety net of sorts, but those are over, and legal protections against evictions are expiring.

But as a whole, the economy hasn’t done badly, at least as it is reflected in the taxes people pay to Virginia’s treasury.

I became a state budget nerd more than two decades ago when I started tracking monthly revenue summaries by keying them into a spreadsheet to augment my reporting on Virginia’s finances in the early years of the 21st century. I never intended it to go on and on and on, but it did, and I’ve cataloged that data for every major category of general fund tax collections every month since.

Over time – 276 months, counting October’s results – those numbers tell some interesting and important stories about Virginia’s booms, busts, and everything in between.

First, a little background for people who lead interesting lives. Virginia’s whole fiscal kit and caboodle for budgeting purposes consist of two primary buckets of revenue: the general fund and the non-general fund.

The non-general fund is the larger of the two, but that money is largely a pass-through, derived from specific sources such as fees, federal grants, fuel taxes, tuition at state-supported colleges, business licenses, and profits from the state monopoly on liquor sales, to name just a few. Non-general fund money is already spoken for, earmarked by law for specific uses.

The general fund underwrites state government operations, which include law enforcement, state employee salaries, state support for local public schools, and mental health services. More than two-thirds of it comes from state income taxes. Since the money is discretionary — that is, its specific use isn’t prescribed by law — it causes the General Assembly’s most protracted disputes. This year’s standoff lasted until June 1, just four weeks before the previous budget expired at the stroke of midnight on June 30, a record surplus notwithstanding.

Because it’s overwhelmingly drawn from personal income, the general fund is an excellent statistical reflection of the commonwealth’s economic health. The past two fiscal years, which start each July 1 and end the next June 30, have been off the charts after the tepid fiscal year of 2020.

In fiscal years 2021 and 2022, total general fund revenues climbed year over year by 14% and 16%, respectively, after a mere 2% increase for fiscal 2020. The only comparable fiscal year since 2000 was a 15% spike in fiscal 2005, the apex of a white-hot economy fueled by a lusty run-up in the real estate market that collapsed three years later, hurtling the nation into the Great Recession.

Hard dollar numbers, however, tell a more convincing story than percentages.

Through fiscal 2020, year-over-year general revenue had increased by $1 billion or more just six times this century, the largest being just under $1.8 billion in fiscal 2005. In fiscal 2021, however, revenue was $3.1 billion greater than the year before, and in the fiscal year that ended this June, it exceeded fiscal 2021’s total by $4 billion. In both of those years, actual collections obliterated official revenue estimates on which budgeted spending was based.

The first quarter of the current fiscal year picked up where fiscal 2022 left off. General tax collections from July through September totaled about $5.6 billion, down slightly from $5.9 billion in the same period the previous year but eclipsing $5 billion for the same quarter three years in a row.

So what does this wonky number soup mean?

Terry Rephann, a regional economist with the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, suggests that it’s the result of wage inflation. He points to data presented to the legislature’s budget-writing committees at their annual retreat last month to back him up.

The presentation said that wages grew by 9.3% in Virginia in the fiscal year that ended June 30 as businesses large and small struggled to rehire staff lost during the pandemic. Wage growth in the previous two fiscal years was 3% and 4.7%, respectively.

Those collections are known as “withholding” revenues, and wage earners recognize them from their pay stubs as the bite already sent off to state and federal governments.

The wild card is the so-called “non-withholding” income taxes paid on capital gains and by the self-employed on their estimated earnings. A stratospheric stock market drove freakish year-over-year non-withholding increases of 31% for each of the past two fiscal years. Over the previous 21 fiscal years, year-over-year average growth was 6%. The trajectory of the past two years of non-withholding collections is unsustainable, a presentation by the House Appropriations Committee staff warned.

So while Virginians make – and tax collectors take – more than ever, how come we feel poorer?

According to Forbes Advisor, the price of meat, fish, and poultry has been up 8% over the past 12 months. Electricity is up 14%, natural gas is up 20%, rent is up 7.5%, and fruits and veggies are up 9.3%. And if you just want to get away, gasoline is 50 cents a gallon higher than it was in mid-2021, though down from this summer’s high of around $5 a gallon. Airline tickets cost 43% more.

It wears people down, and it can make an electorate surly. You can earn enough political science degrees to paper a wall and never hear truer, more actionable wisdom than this: “People vote their pocketbooks.” You don’t need exit polls to know that, either.

 

by Bob Lewis, Virginia Mercury

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at blewis@virginiamercury.com.


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Commentary: The parable of the Bambino

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Virginia Board of Education President Daniel Gecker, a former Gov. Terry McAuliffe appointee, listened to a presentation by Jillian Balow, superintendent of public instruction, at the November 17 Board of Education business meeting. (Nathaniel Cline/Virginia Mercury)

Babe Ruth’s home run record was sure to fall sooner or later. Roger Maris broke Ruth’s 60-homer single-season record with his 61st home run of the 1961 season. Hank Aaron broke Ruth’s career homer record of 714 in 1974 with his 715th career dinger. Now, those broken records have been surpassed.

Somehow, though, Ruth remains distinct and immortal. Here’s one reason why.

It was the fifth inning of game three in the 1932 World Series at Wrigley Field, with the Yankees and Cubs tied 4-4. Ruth had taken two strikes, and the Chicago crowd roared as the Cubs dugout taunted him. The Babe pointed to the flagpole beyond centerfield. On the next pitch, a curveball, he hit it exactly where he had pointed – an estimated 50 feet beyond the centerfield fence 440 feet away.

Ruth made good on his gesture. The Yankees swept the series in four games.

But the Babe didn’t crawl out of the cradle, knocking baseballs out of the park. He had the physical gifts, yes, but he took the time to learn the fine points of the game and perfected his ability to terrorize pitchers on the mound 60 feet, six inches away. Maybe there’s a lesson in this for the governor, even though he’s a basketball guy.

Youngkin, a Republican, won the 2021 governor’s race by positioning himself as a solutions-oriented pragmatist, apart from the snarling nationalism that became his party’s brand during former President Donald Trump’s White House years.

He picked the perfect wedge issue, too: public education. Specifically, Youngkin promised to prioritize parents’ concerns and prerogatives among those who set public school policy and curriculum. After the profound pandemic disruptions in 2020-21 and the 2020 summer of racial tumult following George Floyd’s videotaped curbside murder by a white policeman, Youngkin’s message found resonance not only in Republican rural Virginia but also with households in the centrist suburbs that for years had decisively favored Democrats.

He accused schools of indoctrinating students with “critical race theory,” a college-level academic concept that every Virginia school division denied teaching. He sided with parents who objected to accommodations that schools were making for transgender students and books with mature themes that were in school libraries or made assigned reading for students. He criticized school district requirements that students wear masks to slow the coronavirus spread when they returned to classrooms from months of remote learning.

The afternoon he took office, Youngkin opened fire on those issues in several of the 11 executive actions he signed. He proclaimed that “woke” instruction was doomed and that teaching “inherently divisive concepts” would end once his appointees took over the State Board of Education and could promulgate new curriculum standards.

All of which His Excellency had an absolute right to do. Elections have consequences, and to the victor go the spoils. But a little humility and even more listening and learning go a long way for a layman about to swagger into a minefield as important and complex as statewide education policy.

Over the past two weeks, as the Mercury and other outlets have reported, the governor’s education team has barged into the public school policy arena with hastily drawn revisions to the state’s history/social sciences guidelines and all the grace of an agitated moose in an antique glassware boutique. It hasn’t gone well.

The backstory goes like this. Every seven years, the State Board of Education is required to update the minimum expectations for what K-12 public students should learn in documents known as the Standards of Learning. The ponderous, drawn-out process for updating the history standards, begun during the term of Democratic former Gov. Ralph Northam, yielded a 402-page tome that the board, once Youngkin’s appointees took charge, returned to state Superintendent Jillian Balow in August for additional work. That revision, guided by an outside education consultant, was just 53 pages.

All hell broke loose when it was presented to the board last week. In a long public input session during the nearly eight-hour meeting, the new Cliff’s Notes draft was pilloried by teachers, parents, community groups, and historians as a “whitewash” of history that glosses over the nation’s fraught racial past and minimizes the contributions and perspectives of marginalized and Indigenous people (euphemized as “America’s first immigrants”) and communities of color.

Conservatives and parents’ rights advocates warmed to the brief version for its promotion of free market precepts and limited government. But not even the Youngkin-friendly new board was on board.

According to the Washington Post, Youngkin appointee Andy Rotherham moved to postpone reviewing the new standards, noting apparent lapses on some historical topics, including the anti-slavery abolition movement. Two-term Democratic appointee Anne Holton, a daughter of a Republican governor and wife to a Democratic one, called the November rewrite “a disaster.” She also noted that President Ronald Reagan is referenced six times in the new draft, yet the nation’s first Black president, Barack Obama, is not mentioned.

“Where we sit today, we are so far away from an established process that I am concerned that we’ve lost our way — quite candidly as a board — in terms of directing what’s supposed to be going on,” Daniel Gecker, the board president, said during the meeting.

So now, the board has tasked Balow, and the Department of Education with re-revising the latest revision, restoring some content dropped from the voluminous August draft, correcting typos, omissions, and inaccuracies, and assembling a “crosswalk” document that compares and correlates competing drafts. (The Post already published such a comparison.)

Since then, the contretemps has escalated. An author of books about education who had been a College of William & Mary instructor objected so deeply to being characterized as an expert who had been consulted on the latest standards draft that she took to Twitter to warn of litigation if the claim wasn’t retracted and her very limited role clarified.

There’s a serious need for comprehensive, accurate, quality instruction in history, for thoroughgoing studies into the society we share and for baseline training in American civics – how our democratic republic works. The latest SOL scores show how far our students’ knowledge of those essential American disciplines has slid.

The number of students in the past school year who passed history and social studies SOL exams declined 14% overall from pre-pandemic levels, with steeper drops for marginalized and economically disadvantaged groups. In a nation founded on the premise of an informed, self-governing electorate, there is clear urgency behind the task of restoring comprehensive, first-rate instruction for new generations.

Governor, gaining at least a baseline awareness of what you don’t know before you go to bat can spare you a lot of embarrassment.

When the Bambino stood at the plate 90 years ago in Chicago, stared down the Cubs’ pitcher, and brazenly pointed to the centerfield flagpole, he’d been there before and knew exactly what to do. The rest is baseball lore.

But perhaps some wisdom from basketball and arguably its greatest practitioner, Bill Russell, would best serve the governor: “We overreached our decision power. Sometimes our decisions have to fit the reality of the outside world.”

 

by Bob Lewis, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Blind Squirrel Finds Nut

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Great news to read in the Royal Examiner that the Council voted to fill the Town Manager and Town Attorney positions with Joe Waltz and George Sonnett, respectively.

Over the last several years, it appears we have seen the members of the Town Council make poor decisions that may have leaned toward self-interest that did not necessarily benefit the community. There has been little focus on the real issues, such as future water supply and infrastructure, or a real plan on how to attract both industrial and commercial businesses to pay living wages.

Even a blind squirrel can find a nut sometimes, which is what happened with our Council in selecting Mr. Walsh as Town manager and George Sonnett as Town Attorney. It does indicate that this lame-duck Council can make a decision that has a good long-term effect on the stability and growth of our community. Great strategic move.

Joe did an outstanding job during his first run as Town Manager and left for a better opportunity during the past three years. The town’s decision to bring him back on board is a wise decision because of Joe’s experience. As a result of his previous tenure, his selection offers very little downtime to get to know our community. Over the last several years, taxpayers have footed significant costs for the fees paid to consultants who bring qualified candidates to the table and the time required to go through the screening process.

This common-sense solution solved the challenge of sourcing candidates who would want to move to our unique rural community. Mr. Waltz brings his past Front Royal expertise along with his recently acquired experience to help us move away from the revolving door of town managers.

This will give the new incoming Council a great jump-start to focus on the real issues facing our community. And we will now have someone in the Town Manager’s office who has existing institutional knowledge of the town.

With the new Council coming on board in January and the addition of both Waltz and Sonnett in place, this should begin the process of change that we know needs to happen for the future success of our community. I’m excited about the potential; we need our citizens to support their efforts moving forward.

Michael Graham
Front Royal, Virginia

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