The Warren County School Board during its January 6 meeting elected Arnold Williams Jr. the new chairman for 2020 while two new board members took their seats at the dais for the first time.
“It’s extremely an honor to be chosen as the chairman,” Williams told reporters during an interview that followed the board’s Monday night organizational meeting. “I hope I can carry forward what past chairmen have done for the school system because it’s all about the children.”
Williams replaces long-time School Board member Catherine Bower, who previously served as chairman for the last six years. On Monday, Bower was unanimously elected as the board’s new vice chairman.
Also sitting at the dais to begin their four-year terms were new School Board members Kristen Pence, representing the South River District, and Ralph Rinaldi, representing the Shenandoah District. Both were elected in November 2019.
Returning School Board member James Wells, who represents the Happy Creek District, also was present at Monday’s meeting, which included two closed sessions — one prior to the meeting and one held after the meeting. No announcements were made following either closed session.
Moving forward, School Board Chairman Williams said the School Board’s biggest challenge this year is finding a new superintendent. The role is currently being filled by Interim Superintendent Melody Sheppard, who replaced her former boss, Greg Drescher.
Drescher, who served as Warren County Public Schools (WCPS) superintendent for the last five years of a 37-year career in education, took early retirement effective January 1 to be home with his ill wife, while at the same time being confronted with possible involvement in the ongoing Front Royal Warren County Economic Development Authority (EDA) financial scandal.
While serving as WCPS superintendent, Drescher simultaneously served on the EDA Board of Directors, as chairman in 2017-2018 when the EDA fiasco started to unfold. He stepped down from the EDA board in March 2019 and in mid-September 2019 was indicted by a special grand jury along with 13 other former and current Warren County public officials on two misdemeanor counts of misfeasance and one count of nonfeasance. The charges against the defendants were dropped in October 2019 when a Warren County Circuit Court Judge declared that both misfeasance and nonfeasance were not crimes in the State of Virginia, but the investigation is ongoing.
Upon Drescher’s departure from WCPS, Sheppard moved up from her position as WCPS Assistant Superintendent and has seamlessly maintained business as usual, both for the school system and for the Warren County School Board, which now starts the process to find a permanent replacement.
“Our biggest challenge is getting a new superintendent,” Williams told reporters on Monday. “But I think we’re in a good spot. We’re at the beginning of the new year so we’ve got time to look and not be rushed.”
A new superintendent likely won’t be hired until later this year or even in early 2021, Williams added.
In addition to that challenge, Williams said the School Board faces two other top priorities: ensuring the renovation of A.S. Rhodes Elementary School is completed successfully and retaining a strong and qualified teacher workforce with improved salaries.
“We just need the retention of schoolteachers. In any business you’re in, turnover will kill you,” said Williams, who explained that compared to surrounding school systems, Warren County’s teacher pay scale falls short, resulting in increased numbers of teachers leaving after roughly the five-year mark.
In May 2019, the School Board approved a pay increase after the school district’s 2019-2020 budget was approved by the Warren County Board of Supervisors (BOS), specifically for teachers and other staff members having 11 years to 25 years of experience. The pay raise is part of phase one of the School Board’s three-phase plan to increase the pay scales for WCPS teachers so that they’re competitive with surrounding school districts, Williams said.
Williams also said that he’s hopeful for additional pay increases once the BOS approves a requested second step pay increase for teachers as part of the three-phase plan. “We’ll get there, one way or another,” he said.
In addition to the chairman and vice chairman elections of Williams and Bower, respectively, School Board members also voted unanimously to reappoint Robert Ballentine as the 2020 clerk of the School Board. Ballentine, who first served as deputy clerk from July 2001 through June 2007, has been the School Board’s clerk since July 1, 2007. Ballentine is also director of finance for WCPS.
Four other appointments also were unanimously approved by School Board members during their organizational meeting:
1.) George R. Smith, Jr. as deputy clerk of the Warren County School Board for a term beginning January 1, 2020 and ending December 31, 2020. Smith is also WCPS director of personnel;
2.) School Board member Pence as School Board representative on the Mountain Vista Governor’s School Board;
3.) School Board members Williams and Rinaldi as Building Committee representatives; and
4.) Smith also as designee to attend School Board meetings in the absence of the division superintendent.
Several Action Agenda items were unanimously approved, as well.
First, School Board members approved the 2020 School Board meeting calendar, which sets meetings on the first Wednesday of each month beginning at 7 p.m. and the third Wednesday of each month beginning at 5 p.m., except during July and December, when meetings are scheduled only for the first Wednesday of the month. The meeting normally scheduled for Wednesday, November 18, 2020 has been moved to Tuesday, November 17, 2020 to avoid conflict with the Annual Virginia School Boards Association Convention.
Next, the members unanimously adopted two resolutions — one authorizing payment of bills in emergency situations and in months with only one School Board meeting; the other authorizing the payment of compensation for all employees and school bus operators under written contract and of all other employees whose rates of pay have been established by the school board and “for whom certified time sheets or other evidence of services performed have been received,” according to the agenda.
Additionally, the board authorized advertisement for a public hearing on the fiscal year 2021 budget at the February 5, 2020 School Board meeting. If that meeting must be cancelled due to inclement weather, for instance, the public hearing would be held Wednesday, February 19, 2020 at 7 p.m. in the School Board Administrative Building.
Lastly, School Board members approved a new copier lease for the Warren County School Board Office. The 36-month lease — which calls for payments of $699 per month for a total contract cost of $25,164 or $8,388 per year — replaces the previous copier lease that expired in December 2019, said WCPS Technology Director Timothy Grant.
Finally, the School Board accepted what Chairman Williams called “a greatly appreciated” $1,500-donation from the Cedarville Ruritan to WCPS elementary school nurse clinics to purchase any necessary supplies.
The Warren County School Board’s next regular meeting and work session will be on Wednesday, January 15 at 5 p.m. in the Warren County Government Center board room.
Town/County Liaison Committee Meeting – January 23, 2020
The Town and County held their liaison committee meeting on January 23, 2020 at Town Hall. Mayor Eugene Tewalt chaired the meeting. County Supervisor Chairman Walt Mabe, Supervisor Tony Carter and County Administrator Doug Stanley represented the County. Mayor Tewalt, Councilman Chris Holloway, Town Manager Matt Tederick and Town Attorney Doug Napier represented the Town.
The agenda included the following items:
1 – Review Liaison Committee Mission Statement and Policies
2 – Development Review Committee
3 – Boundary adjustment request from Chris Ramsey
4 – Blighted and Derelict Structure Program
5 – Building inspector software
6 – Data Center
7 – Warren County In-Town Projects
8 – Working together regarding the EDA civil suit
9 – Resolution to General Assembly to allow Town to establish its own EDA separate from existing EDA
10 – Update on Happy Creek Road Project
11 – Discussion on Vehicle Decals
Watch the discussion on this exclusive Royal Examiner video:
Town given okay to amend its civil suit against EDA, with some explanation
Following a conference call with involved attorneys at their respective offices at 8:45 a.m., Friday morning, January 24, Judge Bruce D. Albertson granted the Town of Front Royal leave to amend its current $15 million civil filing against the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority. The Town has 30 days to file an amended suit and the EDA will have the option of filing a demur to dismiss the amended suit as not factually supported legally.
The Town initially filed its suit seeking the return of $3 million of its assets believed to have been misappropriated as part of the EDA financial scandal, on June 21, 2019. That filing was described by Town Attorney Doug Napier at the time as largely precautionary to prevent any statute of limitations deadlines from being passed on yet-to-be-determined fraudulent EDA transactions utilizing Town assets.
Just over three weeks later on July 12, the suit was amended to $15 million, as previously reported, still without any elaboration on the sources of that number.
Of the January 24 judicial okay to again amend its suit, Town Attorney Napier said any coming amendment would “have to be legally cognizable” – or accompanied by legally supportable documentation. Napier said the Town had a scheduled meeting with its contracted auditor, Mitchell and Company, next week. That meeting may shed light on which direction, and how far in either, the Town’s amended civil suit against the EDA will next go.
The EDA’s civil litigation against what has grown to a total of 14 human and business entity defendants currently stands at $21.3 million. And despite his being dropped from the list of EDA civil case defendants in the wake of his death last spring from a possibly self-inflicted gunshot wound, electronic computer and phone records of former Sheriff Daniel McEathron have recently been subpoenaed from his estate in the EDA civil suit.
The initial amendment to the original Town claim against the EDA coincided with the Town’s pulling back from participation in the “EDA Reform Committee” and three-way EDA-Town-County joint meeting efforts geared toward fixing what had gone wrong to allow the alleged misappropriations and embezzlements circling the former EDA executive director, Jennifer McDonald, to happen over a number of years.
At the helm of the EDA for a decade prior to her December 20, 2018 resignation, McDonald has been the central figure in both the civil and criminal cases brought as a result of the Cherry Bekaert investigation of EDA finances begun in September 2018. She currently faces 34 financial felony charges brought by the special grand jury empaneled to investigate potential criminality tied to EDA finances in recent years.
Stated justification for one publicly voiced Town financial dispute with the EDA, the 4% bond interest rate the Town has been asked to cover on construction of the new Front Royal Police Department headquarters, has pointed heavily at “promises” made by McDonald. Those promises revolved around anticipation the FRPD project would qualify for the New Market Tax Credit Program offered municipalities for economic growth capital improvement projects.
However, as a non-job creating project the FRPD construction did not qualify for what would have been a 1.5% interest rate over the 30-year life of the bond issue with funding through the NMTC Program. As that dispute festers on the edge of Town-EDA litigation, the Town has refused to pay what appears to be an undisputed $8.4-million in principal payments bill the EDA has submitted to the Town on the FRPD project.
Written references in a Memorandum of Agreement and Resolutions of support of the NMTC funding cite “anticipation” of the program’s funding and support of that funding being pursued.
Despite late 2017, early 2018 recommendations of then Town Manager Joe Waltz, Finance Director B. J. Wilson and People Inc. NMTC Program Administrator Bryan Phipps that a guaranteed bank-offered 2.65%, 30-year interest rate would be preferable to competing with multiple municipalities for limited NMTC funds, a council majority chose to hold out for the NMTC financing the FRPD project ultimately did not qualify for.
However, some Town officials have pointed to verbal promises made by McDonald that the funding was in place, as a basis for the Town claim it should not pay more than 1.5% interest rate tied to those promises.
A “legally cognizable” argument on one Town claim against the EDA?
Time will tell.
Front Royal defines its digital truth
The American court system has struggled with solutions for the unprecedented increase in crimes involving digital fakes or forgeries. This national struggle hit the Town of Front Royal, Virginia when a $650,000 forensic audit was conducted of the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority (EDA). What this audit uncovered was astounding. Over the course of the last ten years, it is alleged that the EDA’s Executive Director, Jennifer McDonald, and possibly others, embezzled millions of dollars. McDonald is currently charged with 28 felony indictments stemming from alleged fraudulent activity; additionally, in an effort to recover money stolen, the EDA has slapped a $21.3 million civil lawsuit on McDonald and others in hopes of recovering some of the alleged embezzled and misappropriated money.
Committed to never letting something like this happen again, the Town of Front Royal is again on the front lines of this nationwide battle against digital fraud, this time as one of the first localities in America to start independently archiving its “Digital Truth” while taking proactive steps to eliminate future embezzlement schemes by utilizing cutting-edge technology.
“When the bills [for the forensic analysis] started rolling in, I think all of our jaws just about hit the floor,” recalls Doug Napier, Front Royal’s Town Attorney. “This wasn’t some outside rouge hacker attacking our community through the Internet, this was a trusted neighbor, a fiduciary, who had authorized access to digital files and contracts. We have seen first-hand the extraordinary cost of what embezzlement, through digital fraud, can cost. So far between the EDA, the Town and the County we have exceeded over $1.2 million just in accounting and legal fees and legal discovery through the court system hasn’t even started yet.”
Like tens of thousands of other local governments across the United States, Front Royal is transforming from an all paper world to one where vital records like contracts, official meeting minutes, public notices, or development agreements are now a mixture of hard copies, scans, and digitally generated and electronically stored files. As these documents move between the various entities and systems throughout local government, local officials must protect both confidentiality and originality at the same time. To do this, Front Royal turned to Trokt from Des Moines, Iowa, to run a pilot project on a unique blockchain-based application for local governments.
“Towns like Front Royal need a cost effective way to ensure that any file, whether it be a PDF, scan, video, image, or Word document, can be instantly validated as real no matter who shares it, where they store it, or what it is renamed,” says Trokt Managing Director Chris Draper.
“Using the same cryptographic technology as the National Security Agency (NSA), we capture what can be likened to a digital thumbprint or the file’s DNA, and permanently store that thumbprint in a distributed neo-public network. At any time in the future that file or any copy of that file can be instantly validated as an original. If the original were altered in any way, even as small a change as moving a decimal point, it could be instantly proven as a forgery.” Draper adds, “Instead of paying hefty fees and the complexities associated with digital forensics when a file is questioned, our technology provides validation accepted in any court for as little as fifty cents.”
Trokt has quietly spent much of the last decade becoming widely trusted within the LegalTech community for its nimble, user-friendly approach to protecting legally sensitive files as they are developed, shared and negotiated between multiple parties, locations, and organizations.
Looking to the future, Front Royal’s Director of Information Technology, Todd Jones, sees a freedom in Trokt’s platform that fits into his vision of an ongoing digital transformation strategy for the Town.
“We see value in piloting this technology based on the very human-centered and simple design philosophy, while incorporating the power of blockchain’s distributed ledger technology”, says Jones. “Of course, not everyone in today’s workforce was born a digital native. We decided to pilot this technology based on its ease of integration and flexibility to adapt to our current and future workflow processes. Based upon what has happened in our community with the EDA scandal, we have to get this right and never allow document fraud again.”
Trokt (www.trokt.com) provides digital collaboration and enterprise blockchain solutions to define Truth within Digital Transformation. The Trokt neo-public blockchain network is a unique, patent-pending architecture catering to the confidentiality and privacy needs of the LegalTech sector. Trokt is headquartered in Des Moines, Iowa.
Citizen militia debate rejoined at Tuesday County Board meeting
During the second Public Comments portion of the meeting, the debate over the advisability of Warren County passing resolutions authorizing enactment of an armed citizen militia was revisited. The first four of six speakers divided evenly on the topic.
College student Sarah Downs and Paul Gabbert came down against, with Dusty Lipinski and Craig Anderson calling for County action authorizing what they feel is a citizen right inherent in both the U.S. and Virginia Constitutions.
Downs, a student of political ideology at Shenandoah University, first thanked Chairman Walter Mabe for his caution in approaching a previous request the board authorize a citizen militia in Warren County. She then expressed fear of what she called a historical tendency for such militias “to assimilate and acclimate to a certain political ideology that usually identifies with an extreme” philosophy, be it of the left or right politically.
She called for a trust in law enforcement “to do their job in protecting all rights within our county”, adding a call that “all gun holders are protected through the support of local law enforcement providing educational and training classes”, as well as “the enforcement of laws that protect all citizens, especially those most vulnerable to violence of any type, like children, women and those who fall into a minority group”.
Following Downs to the podium, Lipinski attempted to distance current militias from the “previous image” of extremism that Downs referenced. He said such local protections are needed because “the government in Richmond is going to pass laws anyway” that 2nd Amendment advocates see as unconstitutional infringements on their right to own firearms without legal restrictions of any kind.
Local enabling of citizen militias would offer citizens “further protections against any further unconstitutional laws” passed in Richmond Lipinski told the board.
Second Amendment advocates in Virginia have upped their alarm over what they believe are unconstitutional gun control bills on the table in the state general assembly since Democrats last year took their first majority in both houses since 1996. In fact, Tuesday was the final day of a five-day State of Emergency declared by Democratic Governor Ralph Northam in reaction to law enforcement intelligence and FBI arrests of seven members of a radical, racist, anti-government neo-Nazi group known as The Base last week.
At least some of those Base members arrested were believed to be planning to attend an annual gun rights rally on Monday, January 20, at the State Capitol in an effort to turn the demonstration into a violent, politically destabilizing one.
Next up was Gabbert, who told County officials, “I’m not looking to take guns away from people,” but adding, “We don’t need a militia – ever.”
He said he worried that militia members called to duty by local laws would be legally immune to prosecution if they killed someone during that deployment.
Gabbert also disputed a speaker from an earlier board meeting who called gun ownership “a God given right”.
“No, the only God given right is you obey the 10 Commandments and you get to heaven. The rest are government given rights,” Gabbert observed.
Noting that he had lost a brother to a shot from a .22 caliber gun, Gabbert also questioned a previous meeting 2nd Amendment advocate’s contention that modern, semi-automatic assault weapons were “no different than a .22”
Final guns debate speaker Anderson said he had been at the Richmond gun rally the previous day and assured the Warren supervisors that the armed demonstrators who did show up across the street from the State Capitol grounds were “loved” by the on-duty police, one of with whom Anderson said he joked, “When are we going to tar and feather that …” – a possible reference to Democratic Governor Northam.
“What better way to honor Martin Luther King,” Anderson asked, than to have a pro-gun rights rally on his birthday. His point seeming to be that King wasn’t allowed to possess a gun or have a conceal-carry permit during his lifetime, and if he had one, perhaps he wouldn’t have been killed at long range by James Earl Ray utilizing a sniper’s rifle.
Anderson predicted that Democratic leadership and their soft stance on illegal aliens would mark an end to Constitutional law and freely elected presidents within the U.S. He also broached the possibility that the Shenandoah Valley and other parts of the state might be able to leave a Democratically-controlled Virginia to become part of West Virginia in order to avoid what he called “intolerable restrictions on the 2nd Amendment – I won’t mention all the other Amendments that are going to be violated … and this isn’t all just some pipe dream,” he told the Warren supervisors.
Anderson also expressed disappointment in a recent conversation with Warren County Sheriff Mark Butler, whom Anderson said, told him law enforcement was the American militia in the modern world.
Of the potential of red flag laws being passed by the state legislature and enforced locally, Anderson added, “Those red flag laws should terrorize everybody – you can be prosecuted if anybody doesn’t like you; your weapons are seized and you have to prove you are innocent.”
And so the debate rages over conflicting political and philosophical perceptions of gun rights versus the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were you to be on the wrong side of the next mass shooting in Virginia or the nation.
See the above speakers’ full remarks, as well as additional public comments speakers Greg Harold and Harold Baggarly, between whom there was some confusion when Chairman Mabe called Harold’s name to speak, in the linked Royal Examiner video:
Supervisors delay vote on VDOT-aided road improvement projects
Citing budgetary concerns in the coming fiscal year and a desire not to raise taxes to meet budgetary commitments, a majority of the Warren County Board of Supervisors urged delay of a vote approving a VDOT-requested Resolution committing the County’s contribution to preliminary engineering, right of way acquisition and construction costs on seven projects through the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) Revenue Sharing Program.
While the vote was unanimous to table the matter to the February 4 meeting, it appeared that non-first term members Archie Fox and Tony Carter concurred only because it did not appear a two-week delay approving the Resolution would jeopardize VDOT’s matching contribution on road improvement projects on the table for several years.
The fact the County’s share of the dollar-for-dollar state match totaled $753,312.50 was too much for the three newly-seated supervisors without further information on, not only road improvement expenses, but other anticipated funding needs in the coming budget cycle. It appeared the three newly-elected supervisors were firmly committed to avoiding any tax increase to balance the coming FY 2021 budget.
The staff summary of the agenda item noted that the County already has $411,220 set aside in “special projects” for the revenue sharing program; and anticipated having another $100,000 in carryover from the current budget for the program which often spans several budget cycles.
“To complete payment of the remaining share of the projects would require less than $250,000 moving forward,” staff wrote in the agenda summary of committing County revenue to what would be a total revenue input of $1.5 million toward VDOT eligible projects in the county.
However, without departmental, outside agency and other FY 2021 budget aspects yet on the table, Supervisors Mabe, Cullers and Oates were reluctant to forward commitment of all or part of the three quarters of a million-dollar-plus county half of that money to road infrastructure improvements.
Impacted projects include the Cauthorn Mill Road Rural Rustic Project; Old Oak Lane, Phase IV Rural Addition Project (Shenandoah Farms Sanitary District); Youngs Drive, Phase II (Shenandoah Farms); Rockland Road grade-separated (railroad) crossing; Grove Farm Road – Rural Addition Priority # 6 (Fairfield Acres Subdivision); Blue Valley Road, Phase I, Rural Addition Priority # 7 (Linden Heights Sanitary District); and Old Oak Lane, Phase V – Rural Addition Priority # 8 (Shenandoah Farms).
Cullers said she was willing to move forward with approval of the Rockland Road project, noting that $710,000 in BUILD Grant/SmartScale funding appeared to have been secured – “I haven’t totally lost my mind up here,” Cullers observed of not looking a gift horse in the mouth.
During the discussion it was explained that in Sanitary District projects, VDOT paid 50%, the County 25%, and the Sanitary District taxpayers 25%.
See the discussion in this exclusive Royal Examiner video:
Supervisors deny EDA request for dismissed charges legal fees – for now
On Tuesday, January 21, the Warren County Board of Supervisors denied the current EDA Board of Director’s request that four past and three current members be compensated for their legal fees related to three misdemeanor criminal indictments brought by the Special Grand Jury empaneled to explore potential criminality tied to the EDA financial scandal and consequent civil litigation.
The charges for unintentional misfeasance and nonfeasance in the conduct of their public offices were brought against the entire previous board of supervisors, County Administrator Doug Stanley and former County and EDA Attorney Dan Whitten, as well as the seven past and current EDA board members. After the charges were dismissed against all defendants as not crimes by statute or even English Common Law upon which Virginia law is based, the previous County board voted to reimburse its members and staff’s legal expenses, with only ousted Shenandoah District Supervisor Tom Sayre dissenting.
North River Supervisor Delores Oates, who made the motion not to approve the request, qualified it with the disclaimer “not at this time with the information we have at this time”. Oates said she did not feel comfortable committing county taxpayer funds to the EDA legal expenses without more information.
Oates, along with Board Chairman Walter Mabe and Vice-Chair Cheryl Cullers, the latter who seconded the motion not to approve the legal restitution for now, have been frequent attendees at EDA Board of Directors meeting in recent months. All have expressed a desire to work with the existing board to try and right the EDA’s financial ship from past mistakes or allegedly criminal activities orchestrated by former EDA executive director, Jennifer McDonald. McDonald currently faces 34 felony criminal indictments by the EDA Special Grand Jury related to the EDA financial investigative audit and civil litigation.
“It would be ludicrous for us to turn our backs on our EDA,” Board Chairman Mabe recently stated, in stark contrast to the Front Royal Town Council’s increasingly hostile and litigious stance against the Town-County EDA. Discussion of the Town and County roles in support, or a lack thereof, of the current EDA should make for interesting agenda item discussion at Thursday’s scheduled Town-County Liaison Meeting.
Happy Creek Supervisor Tony Carter argued for the reimbursement, at least partially, noting that the EDA board had agreed to pay the requested total of $36,827.17 back when it was financially able – “though that might not be for a while,” Carter observed.
Carter suggested perhaps capping the EDA board compensation at $4,000 per member since questions have been raised about the disparity in some legal fees, compared to others. Former EDA Board Chairman Greg Drescher’s legal bill was $10,000, twice that of the next highest amount of $5,000 submitted by long-time former EDA Board Treasurer William “Billy” Biggs. Other EDA legal fee totals ranged from $4809.17 (Patteson) to $3,000 (Drummond).
Carter suggested postponing a vote, rather than denying the request due to the timeframe around reintroducing failed motions – one year. However, Acting County Attorney Jason Ham verified that a supervisor voting with the majority denying a motion, or in this case approving a motion to deny the request, could reintroduce the defeated initiative at any time.
Consequently, Carter voted with Oates, Cullers and Mabe to deny the request, leaving only Archie Fox voting against the denial.
Watch the discussion on this exclusive Royal Examiner video: