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Town Talk: A conversation with Michelle Ross, Samuels Public Library

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In this Town Talk, our publisher Mike McCool speaks with Michelle Ross, the Executive Director of the Samuels Public Library.

Samuels Public Library serves Front Royal and Warren County. Samuels Library brings people, information, and ideas together to enrich lives and build community.  Please visit their website or Facebook page for more information.

So what’s new and exciting at Samuels? Watch and learn.


Town Talk is a series on the Royal Examiner where we will introduce you to local entrepreneurs, businesses, non-profit leaders, and political figures who influence Warren County. Topics will be varied, but hopefully interesting. If you have an idea, topic, or want to hear from someone in our community, let us know. Send your request to news@RoyalExaminer.com


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Town short-term rental rule decision deferred to Feb. 28; citizen concerns voiced and Solid Waste staff and Energy Department Director Jenkins lauded for service

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(Writer’s note: as observed in the first caption below, apologies for any name misspellings as Royal Examiner was informed by Council Clerk Tina Presley the afternoon of Jan. 26 that any media requests for information, even correct spellings of involved parties or public speaker sign-in sheet names, must now be forwarded by town staff to the Town’s out-of-town Public Information Officer Joanne Williams for a response, which has not yet been received.)


At its meeting of Monday evening, January 24, the Front Royal Town Council delayed action on an ordinance amendment setting in-town regulations for short-term “tourist” rentals; removed “Vape-Oriented” from a recommendation on lighting regulation code changes for businesses in the town limits; finalized naming of an interim town attorney and authorized the expenditure of $24,500 in contracting an executive search firm to recommend a permanent replacement for recently retired Town Attorney Doug Napier, among other business items.

While only four of the six cited were present, Solid Waste crew members James Swindle, Eric Tergusson, James Walker, George Guerrero, Paul Breed, Dane Craig, with citizen and later BZA appointee Michael Williams, sixth from right, were acknowledged for their work and civic responsibility. (Apologies for any misspellings here or in story as we could not get spellings verified by the council clerk on instructions that ALL informational inquiries must go through the Town’s out-of-town Public Information Officer.) Royal Examiner Photos by Roger Bianchini

But before getting down to its action agenda items, two recognitions of Town personnel were acknowledged. First, was the Solid Waste crew for its ongoing work under sometimes trying conditions to keep the town from accumulated waste. Then a fond farewell was bid to soon-to-be-retired Department of Energy Services Director David Jenkins for his 30 years of service to the town and its electric/energy department.


Retiring after 30 years in the department as of Jan. 27, 2022, Energy Services Director David Jenkins created a blur of good wishes around him following photo op with town council. And let’s get a closer look at that plaque, David – sorry to see you go – BUT you earned it!

With no citizens present to comment and some questions remaining, the one scheduled public hearing on the short-term rental ordinance was left open so that the public could appear at council’s February 28 meeting to express opinions on how short-term rentals should be regulated in the town’s often more tightly packed than county residential neighborhoods. One change suggested by several council members was elimination of a mandate that short-term rentals have an active landline phone to assure the ability of renters to reach emergency services if cell phone service was to fail. The recommendation was initially made at the planning department level due to sometimes spotty cell phone service in some areas. Amber Morris called the condition “archaic in this day and age” and several members supported that notion.

Public Comments raise questions

Following council discussion of the short-term tourist rental issues, council heard from four public speakers on four separate issues of public interest not on the agenda. Those speakers were George Cline Jr., president of the Warren County Builders Association, who addressed concerns about the Town’s process in taking over inspection on in-town building and repair projects; Gene Kilby restating his initiative to have council rename a town street in honor of the town’s first African-American mayor, George E. Banks, who was laid to rest this past week; third, Michael Shutton, who addressed issues he has observed with uncleared sidewalks packed with ice-covered snow in town in front of private business or residential properties forcing at least one handicapped person in a wheelchair and students heading toward Skyline High and/or Middle Schools to walk or wheel in the cleared street; and finally attorney Tom Sayre who questioned the $24,500 contract expenditure on the town attorney search with a competent, long-term assistant town attorney, George Sonnett, in place, in house.

In posing a list of questions to council and staff (at 17:45 to 28:40 mark of linked Town video), Cline was somewhat critical of a lack of Town communications with the Builders Association in the process of developing the new Town Building Inspection Department.

The quartet of Public Comments speakers had questions and observations for council and staff, beginning with WC Builders Association President George Cline Jr. – ‘Hold on a second,’ Cline may be indicating as he questioned the creation and function of the new Town Building Inspection Dpt., as well as whether Town Manager Hicks (far left on dais) is ‘certified’ to fill his role as the Town Building Official.

“Our association has a tremendous amount of depth and knowledge, and could have probably presented some great ideas or suggestions had we been asked. We weren’t asked,” Cline said, echoing previous criticism of the Town’s clearing of trees and vegetation at Happy Creek without consultation with available boards or consultants that led to the resignation of the Town’s Urban Forestry Board and a philosophical break with The Tree Stewards.

Next up (at 29:05 to 31:50 marks of linked Town video), Kilby acknowledged the burial of Front Royal’s first and only African American mayor, George E. Banks, in the Veterans Cemetery in Culpeper, Virginia, earlier that day. Noting his call of a year ago to council to name a street after a man he said, “succeeded in bringing this community together while making considerable improvements,” Kilby renewed that call with some added detail. That detail included support from residents of the involved street at Edgemont Avenue where it turns right into Scranton Avenue and goes by Banks’ property.

“We have signatures (of support) from almost all of the residents of Edgemont Avenue, and I don’t think it would be difficult for us to get signatures from the four properties that face Scranton Avenue,” Kilby told council and the mayor, concluding by giving a brief bio of Banks service to the council clerk.

Gene Kilby revisited a plea to council to name a town street in honor of late Front Royal Mayor George E. Banks; and Michael Shotton (sp?) addressed a Town failure to hold businesses and residential owners more immediately liable for clearing sidewalks of show and ice to prevent the kind of in-street pedestrian traffic he has recently witnessed.

Next was Michael Shutton (at 32:00 to 35:55 marks of the linked Town video). Shutton, whose name we hope we are spelling correctly in the absence of verification from the council clerk, described a recent experience coming to the aid of a middle aged man struggling in a wheelchair in the street at the intersection of Route 340 (South Royal Ave.) and South Street due to the accumulated snow and ice on the sidewalk. Shutton, who said he has children at both Skyline Middle and High Schools, noted he had also seen children walking toward the schools in the street for the same reason.

Concluding the Public Comments on non-agenda items, which council has approved moving to after all of a meeting’s public hearings are completed, was local attorney Tom Sayre (36:08 to 37:20 mark of linked video). Sayre questioned the $24,500 expenditure on an executive search contractor to find a new town attorney, suggesting council first take a hard look at current Assistant Town Attorney George Sonnett (not a bad idea, Tom). However, with the expenditure approved, Council member Thompson cited the contractor’s extensive background work beyond what council could accomplish in house. “It really is a perfect company to deal with this. – And we got Steven,” Thompson said of the company bringing current Town Manager Steven Hicks to council’s attention. But if memory serves correctly, Hicks was chosen after a search during which a round or two of interviewed candidates were rejected by council.

Other business

Near the meeting’s end council appointed Christine Arrons (sp?) and Michael Williams to the Board of Zoning Appeals. Earlier at the request of Council member Letasha Thompson, Williams was asked to join the Town Solid Waste Crew for its photo op due to his call to the town government alerting it to the accumulating waste situation at the Kendrick Lane subdivision where the property’s ownership appears to have let its privately contracted waste pick up lapse, leading to the town crew being dispatched to cleanup a quickly deteriorating situation for subdivision residents.

The interim town attorney named as one of the meeting’s last four action items, as noted in an earlier press release, is James E. Cornwell Jr. of White Stone, Va. As previously reported with the press release announcement of the plan to hire Cornwell, White Stone is a coastal town near the mouth of the Rappahannock River in Lancaster County. The Town press release noted Cornwell’s 45 years of experience in representation of local “governments, public bodies and authorities”.

Non-FOIA compliant closed meeting addition rejected

At the meeting’s outset (1:50 mark) Councilman Gary Gillespie made a motion to add one item to the agenda, a closed session without any FOIA-mandated identification of subject matter. The motion was seconded and a role call vote of approval was made until the final name called, when Letasha Thompson voted “no”. Mayor Holloway noted that with late agenda additions requiring a unanimous vote of approval, the motion failed. Queried later by the media about her “no” vote, Thompson explained that without clarity on the topic she felt that “whatever it was could wait until next week”.

See these recognitions, discussions, votes, and council and manager reports in the above-referenced Town video.

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Update: Bentonville teen dies off Chincoteague Bay after boat capsizes, boy, 17, missing

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Update January 22, 2022 – The Virginia Marine Police are investigating a boating incident that left one dead and one missing.

At approximately 9:22 am on January 22, 2022, the Virginia Marine Police received a call regarding a capsized vessel in the Chincoteague Bay near Curtis Merritt Harbor. Witnesses reported that a 16-foot John Boat carrying four people was struck by a wave causing the vessel to capsize. All four people went into the water. A Good Samaritan was able to rescue two people who remained with the vessel. The United States Coast Guard (USCG) recovered one deceased adult male, identified as Corey Alles of Bentonville Virginia. A 17-year-old male remains missing.

The Virginia Marine Police will resume the search for a missing 17-year-old male in the morning. The other adult male and a 17-year-old male were transported to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries.

The United States Coast Guard, Virginia Marine Police, Virginia State Police, Maryland State Police, and the Chincoteague Police Department are assisting with the investigation.


The Virginia Marine Police and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission offers its deepest condolences to the families during this time.”

More information to follow as it becomes available.


A Bentonville teen died, and another teen is missing after their Jon boat capsized it Saturday morning in the Chincoteague Bay, according to a media release from the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.

The incident occurred around 9:20 a.m. near Curtis Merritt Harbor at the southern end of the island. A wave apparently hit the 16-foot boat, according to Marine Police and all four people went into the water.

Cory Alles, in a social media post from August 2021.

Marine police stated that on board were two 17-year-olds, a 19-year-old and 18-year-old Corey Alles of Bentonville, VA.

A good Samaritan rescued two of the passengers near the boat, while the U.S. Coast Guard recovered the body of Alles. Officials say the 19-year-old man and one of the 17-year-olds were taken to the hospital with injuries considered non-life-threatening.

The release said that a 17-year-old male is still missing, and marine police will continue their search for him in the morning.

The U.S. Coast Guard, Virginia Marine Police, Virginia State Police, Maryland State Police, and the Chincoteague Police Department are all jointly

conducting the investigation. The families and the next of kin have been notified.

Officials declined to comment if the missing teen was from the Front Royal/Warren County area. This story will be updated as more information becomes available.

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Council ponders where to find money for police budget and other projects

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Money and spending priorities were on the mind of the Front Royal Town Council Thursday evening, January 20, at a Special Work Session called, if not specifically for budget matters, for a number of things with cost analysis and price tags of some significance. Among those were a Water Plant Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) System Procurement to replace the 15-year-old system now in place; “Council Initiatives” including some Capital Improvement Projects (CIP) for the coming fiscal year (July 1, 2022, thru June 30, 2023); and an outside contract with an “Executive Search Services” company in the hiring of a new lead town attorney.

Other agenda topics at what was a four-hour-plus work session chaired by Vice-Mayor Lori Cockrell in Mayor Holloway’s absence, were a Comp Plan Update/Existing Conditions Report; and proposed text amendments to Chapter 148 (Subdivision and Land Development), both presented by Planning Director Lauren Kopishke; and “Open Discussion” including a pending council resolution establishing the Town of Front Royal as a “Destination Marketing Organization” with the town manager as “Chief Liaison” on the DMO tourism promotional effort.

Vice Mayor Lori Cockrell chaired the work session in the absence of Mayor Holloway. Council member Amber Morris attended by remote phone connection to give council full attendance.

Town Planning Director Lauren Kopishke, upper right at podium, led council through a Comp Plan process update and discussion of proposed text amendments to the Town Code on Subdivision and Land Development. Below, ‘Council Initiatives’ for the coming year with cost estimates were presented by the town manager. Royal Examiner Photos by Roger Bianchini


The open portion of the work session followed a Closed Session at the meeting’s 6 p.m. outset for interviews for positions on the Board of Zoning Appeals, the Town Local Building Code of Appeals, and Joint Tourism Committee.

And there was one “Budget Overview” specific to the Fiscal Year 2022-23 budget process of particular interest to elected officials and their constituents. That was a presentation on factors and budget needs within the Front Royal Police Department (FRPD) by Chief Kahle Magalis. In introducing the police chief, Town Manager Steven Hicks noted that at its recent “Retreat” council had expressed an interest in hearing directly from the chief about the proposed police budget. That introduction, presentation, and discussion begins at the 1:35:05 mark of the Town video.

FRPD needs and costs

And with “public safety” generally seen as one of the priority functions of government at every level from both sides of the political aisle, FRPD funding needs and how to achieve them were a major concern. However, apparently following what he believes to be council’s lead on balancing the FY-2022-23 budget, Town Manager Hicks pointed out that “my recommendation will not be for a tax increase”. Rather, budget cuts, push back of some projects to future budget cycles, or the use of contingency or reserve funds to fill revenue gaps seemed the favored strategy. That message followed Hicks’ summary of variables in presenting a staff-recommended budget to council for approval:

“Once I do my budget recommendation, the process is in your all’s hands and you have all means to tweak it … Also, I may come back with financing, looking at how we may be able to (access) potential other funding sources. But everything is on the table, our reserves, our debt services, and other options because I may need that” at which point his above observation “Other than that my recommendation will not be for a tax increase …” was made.

However, Councilman Gary Gillespie appeared to leave the tax increase door open should a need become apparent. “I’m just saying if we’re needing one, give us a recommendation on how much maybe. Because the other stuff is important too, Steven,” Gillespie said of the myriad “Council Initiatives” and other Capital Improvement needs – like a new or majorly renovated “Fleet Maintenance building” projected at initial costs in the coming budget year cited as $170,000 with an eventual total cost of $1.7 million – presented to council before Chief Magalis reached the meeting podium.

The agenda cover page of the “FY23 Police Department Overview” noted a current FY-2021/22 Budget of $5,227,200, with a Town staff-recommended $5,300,000 FY-2022/23 versus a department requested $5,733,960. That means the administrative staff recommendation leaves the police department with a $433,960 funding deficit for projected needs in the coming fiscal year.

FRPD Chief Kahle Magalis waits to begin his budget and departmental summary as the town manager deals with some PowerPoint projection tech issues. Below, a comparison of the departmental budget request versus the town manager’s suggested numbers. There was a nearly $434,000 difference in the requested and administration-recommended numbers.

Of that deficit, just under $104,000 are cuts to requested “Merit Increases” to departmental staff. Another $200,000 appeared to be in “Fleet Replacement” vehicle costs in which the “Town Manager’s Review” cited no allocation, as it did not in the “Narcotics K-9” ($15,000) and “Taser Replacement ($47,500) categories. Merit increases are now seen as essential in maintaining qualified, experienced staff in an increasingly competitive municipal staffing environment. The chief also noted the department would be hit by four pending retirements mid-year, including Major Kevin Nicewarner.

The FRPD budget is in support of 38 certified police officers (Magalis corrected from 39 in the agenda summary) and “14 full-time and 3 part-time civilian employees” (55 total), in addition to “2 police canines” though one will be retired due to obsolete drug training due to the legalization of marijuana, it was explained; working in three divisions – Patrol, Investigations, and Communications – in addition to the department’s administrative staff. Average police departmental funding over the past 5 years has been $5,109,808 the staff summary noted. And while his and the chief’s budget recommendations were over $400,000 apart, the town manager did laud Magalis in recent budget cycles – “The chief has done a lot with a little,” Hicks told council.

Related to the need to replace one drug-sniffing canine due to changed drug laws forcing dogs trained in marijuana sniffing into retirement, it was suggested to seek funding help from the state legislature on that $15,000 expense since it was created by legalization legislation at the state level.

When council discussion turned to the possibility of writing of more traffic tickets as a revenue-producing source, perhaps with changes in state driving laws contributing to such an effort, Chief Magalis pointed out: “We don’t write tickets for revenue. We write tickets for public safety. And we’ve always had that, we’ve never had quotas for officers or anything like that …”

In response to one observation on an increase in tickets issued helping to generate additional revenue support for his department, Chief Magalis explained that revenue from tickets issued was incidental, that traffic tickets are not issued as a revenue generating mechanism, but rather in pursuit of maintaining public safety.

The chief’s point for council to consider is that unlike some Enterprise Fund departments like public utilities where user fees can support operations, law enforcement is not constructed as a self-supporting, revenue-generating department. Rather, it is a public service department created to ensure the public safety and at the local level the Constitutional assurance of a “General Welfare” of a government’s citizens. Due to these variables it is a service often supported to a large extent by tax revenue paid by the citizens of the enabling government.

Regarding another change at the state level disallowing the suspension of driver’s licenses as a punishment for certain offenses, Gillespie lamented that change and any corresponding fine-generated revenue loss. “Something I disagree with is taking the leverage away from the fines. Because guys, let me tell you something, there’s nothing in our Constitution that says you have a right to drive – nothing!”

However, the councilman did not address the fact that when the Constitution was written circa the early 1790’s, motor vehicles themselves and the need to drive them over increasing distances to maintain basic necessities like employment and access to basic essentials, did not yet exist. In fact, one might argue that the Ninth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people” could be applied to the right of American citizens to drive in a modern world never envisioned by the nation’s “Founding Fathers” some 230 years ago.

Perhaps related, if not anticipated to be connected to a Constitutional rights discussion related to law enforcement funding, were improvements to the Town Trolley transit system. Those included establishment of covered route stops and a broader time schedule and more easily available information on scheduled stopping times at various locations throughout the town limits.

See these and all the special work session discussions in the Town video.

 

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Front Royal’s Economic Development Authority has inaugural meeting

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The newly formed Front Royal Economic Development Authority (FREDA) met for the first time, at 11 a.m. Thursday morning, January 20, 2022, in the second-floor Town Hall meeting room. Royal Examiner was notified that what was primarily an orientation meeting and the first gathering meet and greet of the town council-appointed FREDA Board of Directors would not be livestreamed or videotaped by the Town, leading to the presence of the Royal Examiner camera to visually document the occasion.

Told the Jan. 20th FREDA meeting would not be livestreamed or videotaped by the Town, the Royal Examiner camera was present to record the inaugural FREDA gathering. Royal Examiner Photos by Roger Bianchini

The meeting was chaired by Town Manager Steven Hicks, who has been tasked by the Town Council to also serve as FREDA’s executive director. The meeting began two of seven board members short, with Nick Bass and Rick Novak both arriving a few minutes after the 11 a.m. starting time. Final arrivee, Royal Cinemas owner Novak, explained a concession stand equipment malfunction had delayed his arrival.

The now fully manned board took on a four action-item agenda, including presentation of draft bylaws for review; setting dates for a FREDA retreat (March 8), as well as its next meeting (Feb. 17, indicating a third Thursday rotation of regular monthly meetings); and Virginia Economic Development Partnership (VEDP) General Counsel Sandy McNish’s remotely presented PowerPoint overview of EDA functions and state legal parameters for EDA operations, including financial lending utilizing public funds to stimulate economic development for a public good.



The full FREDA Board of Directors, executive director/town manager, and other Town support staff listen to VEDP General Counsel Sandy McNish virtually summarize an overview of EDA functions and legal parameters.

McNish noted Virginia as a Dillon Rule state in which localities and political subdivisions like EDA’s cannot exceed authorities “expressly granted by the General Assembly”. She also noted that municipally created EDA’s are independent entities from the municipalities that create them and utilize their services in economic development initiatives and assistance in financing economic development projects.

In prefacing the FREDA board for the VDEP presentation, Town Manager/FREDA Executive Director Hicks said, “Today is obviously our first overall meeting. We’ve got a pretty decent agenda, more of just an intro of what we’re going to do. We’re going to talk about EDA 101 … and also I would kind of like to go around the table and have everyone introduce (themselves) with a brief bio of who you are, as well. And then I’m going to introduce the staff that will be supporting the EDA as we go forward.”

The full FREDA board meets and greets as Executive Director/Town Manager Steven Hicks presides at far head of the table.

Those FREDA Board of Director introductions included (in the order listed in the agenda packet summary of their backgrounds):

Isaac Rushing (1-year term), owner of Honey and Hops Brew Works at 212 E. Main St., also cited as “a former supervisor with the Town of Front Royal” though no department was included in his profile;

David Gedney (1-year term), owner of Element Restaurant (317 E. Main St.), also a current member of the Town Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA), who has past experience “in planning/growing a recycling effort for VCU” (Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond);

Mark Tapsak (2-year term), owner of Mountain Music (217 E. Main St.), also cited as “a medical device research scientist and consultant with Diabetic Health Inc., as well as a university (unspecified) teacher of biochemistry and chemistry courses.”

Rick Novak (2-year term), as previously noted owner of Royal Cinemas (117 E. Main St.) and Royal Family Bowling Center (430 Remount Rd.), also cited as a former owner of the Blue Ridge Motel and Royal Family Amusement Arcade;

Frank Stankiewicz (3-year term), owner/manager of Green to Ground Electrical LLC (316 Warren Ave.), also cited as “President of local (unspecified) networking organization”;

James Crowell (3-year term), owner of Quecon, Inc. IT Engineering Co. (134 Peyton St.) “that specializes in cybersecurity, software engineering and telecommunications” who is also cited as “Graduated from Goldman Sachs 10,000 small business program (10KSB), Veteran’s Institute of Procurement (VIP), VA Scaling for Growth (S4G), Small Business Administration (SBA) business development.”

Nick Bass (4-year term), cited as “Geotechnical and construction consultant; experience reviewing construction contracts and subcontractor agreements to identify risky language; marketing experience and communications skills.”

In her presentation to the newly created FREDA Board of Directors, VEDP General Counsel McNish, who noted a 14-plus year tenure at VEDP, said, “So, what’s an EDA? You’re enabling legislation is the Industrial Development and Revenue Bond Act. You’re a political subdivision of the Commonwealth, much as the VEDP is; you are a separate legal entity, as the VEDP is. You’re not the town that created you, the town that created you is not you. You have a separate subdivision, you are a different thing.”

As their executive director phrased it, the FREDA board is briefed in detail on ‘EDA 101’ by 14-year veteran VEDP General Counsel Sandy McNich.

She continued to note that EDAs “are usually created by one locality but they can … be created by two or more, as you know. And authorities, even if they’re from separate localities, can, indeed, work together in a cooperative way on projects.”

One might hope that as an evolving independent subdivision of the Town of Front Royal, that type of inter-EDA cooperation will develop, as has been offered by the WC EDA Board, despite the total cut off of all communications, other than civil litigation, example that has been set in recent months by the Front Royal Town Council and its town management staff.

“You have very broad powers under the Industrial Development and Revenue Bond Act. And you can do most anything, so long as you do it under your animating purpose, which is to promote industry and develop trade by inducing manufacturing, industrial, governmental, etc. facilities to locate in or remain in the Commonwealth.

“Now if you’re providing a branch or something to somebody or helping with a developmental plan, that’s certainly going to benefit a private company. But that’s okay because that’s not why you are doing it. You’re doing it for a public purpose,” McNish pointed out of attracting business or industry to an area as a general economic benefit to the community in which the EDA operates.

See the remainder of the VEDP presentation, as well as the FREDA board’s introductions, and other agenda topic discussions in this exclusive Royal Examiner video.

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Governor Youngkin announces updated guidelines for parents, educators, and preK-12 schools

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On January 21, 2022, Governor Glenn Youngkin announced updated guidelines for parents, educators, and schools per Executive Order 2, which creates a parental opt-out from mask mandates at both public and private schools in the Commonwealth. The guidelines were developed by the Virginia Department of Health and the Department of Education.

“I have said all along that we are going to stand up for parents. Executive Order 2 is not about pro-masks versus anti-mask, it’s about empowering parents. I am confident that the Virginia Supreme Court will rule in the favor of parents, reaffirming the parental rights clearly laid out in the Virginia code § 1-240.1. In the meantime, I urge all parents to listen to their principal and trust the legal process. If you have any questions or concerns please contact us at helpeducation@governor.virginia.gov,” said Governor Glenn Youngkin.

Click here to read a full copy of guidelines from the Virginia Department of Health and the Department of Education.

Click here for the constituent services page.



The updated guidance is redesigned around Governor Youngkin’s key principles of parental rights, keeping kids in the classroom five days a week, and keeping kids safe and healthy. The update guidelines:

  • Emphasizes alternative mitigation measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19 including vaccination, distancing, and outbreak awareness.
  • Provides a clear decision tree for parents to review when trying to determine how to keep and return children to the classroom.
  • Strongly encourages test-to-stay and other strategies to keep and return kids to the classroom as quickly as possible
  • Gives schools practicable flexibility on contact tracing, distancing, and other strategies.
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School masks opt-outs change; Board briefed on counseling programs

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Students attending Warren County Public Schools (WCPS) now may be opted out of the division’s face mask mandate without citing a reason, in line with a new order issued by Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

The governor’s January 15 Executive Order Number Two, which takes effect on Monday, January 24, permits parents to opt-out their children from the mask requirement without stating a reason, replacing the current state policy issued by Gov. Ralph Northam allowing parents to opt-out students from any mask requirement with a religious or medical exemption.

Additionally, in lieu of Youngkin’s new order, WCPS Director of Special Services Michael Hirsch and WCPS Superintendent Christopher Ballenger provided members of the Warren County School Board, during its Wednesday, January 19 work session with the division’s updated 2021-2022 mitigation plan.

WCPS Director of Special Services Michael Hirsch provided members of the Warren County School Board, during its Wednesday, January 19 work session with the division’s updated 2021-2022 mitigation plan. Photos and video by Mike McCool, Ro


The plan remains in Phase II due to the County’s high coronavirus transmission rate and requires students, staff, and visitors to wear face coverings while inside school buildings, among other steps that may be taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19, such as social distancing.

Specifically, Ballenger discussed with board members his concerns related to staff and teacher shortages due to the ongoing pandemic. Attending Wednesday’s work session were School Board Chairwoman Kristen Pence, Vice Chairman Ralph Rinaldi, and School Board members Antoinette Funk, Andrea Lo, and Melanie Salins.

On Thursday, Ballenger issued a Parent Communication posted online — that will also be sent home to parents and guardians — stating that to adhere to Virginia law, WCPS must ensure that staff is available to provide daily in-person instruction.

“In order to meet the needs of our students, WCPS recognizes that current infection rates in Warren County could limit our ability to provide in-person instruction,” according to Ballenger’s communication. “Therefore, WCPS will remain in Phase II (masks are required for students unless they have an exemption form on file) of our mitigation plan for the next two weeks and will reevaluate phased status at the February 2, 2022, board meeting.”

Due to federal requirements, students and staff still must wear masks on school buses, Ballenger told board members. He added that WCPS will continue to check data on transmission rates to ensure the division is in the appropriate phase and plans to survey teachers and staff on whether masks should be required or encouraged for staff.

School counseling presentation
The School Board at its January 5 regular meeting voted to put on hold the Second Step Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) program curriculum in WCPS pending review after two members said parents should be made more aware of the program’s content. The vote was to temporarily suspend Second Step until parents, school administrators, teachers, the School Board, and community leaders have time to review the program’s content.

Following a review, board action can then be introduced to either continue the program, modify it, or cancel it.

During the board’s Wednesday work session, WCPS Curriculum Supervisor Heather Bragg and other WCPS staff provided such a review that included information on Second Step, which is a registered trademark of the nonprofit Committee for Children. WCPS purchased Second Step from the Committee for Children, which says on its website that the Second Step programs are research-based, teacher-informed, and classroom-tested to promote the social-emotional development, safety, and well-being of children from early learning through Grade 8.

WCPS Curriculum Supervisor Heather Bragg and other WCPS staff provided the School Board with a review the Second Step Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) program curriculum in WCPS.

Specifically, Bragg and other WCPS staff reviewed the Elementary and Middle School Standards for School Counseling Programs that included primary lessons and supplementary materials, including Second Step.

Overall, the K-12 programs, Bragg said, are designed to support the development of students’ academic, career, and personal/social development. Specifically, the academic component is designed to meet local, state, and national standards. The career development component addresses successful transitions for students from elementary to middle to high school and on to post-secondary education or the workforce, while the personal/social development component is designed to foster responsible citizens, said Bragg.

“To address the needs of all of our students, we offer teachers and staff the flexibility to choose the materials that best meet their needs,” she said, adding that each school has its own set of needs-based upon the students served by each school. Therefore, instruction is “unique and tailored” and uses a variety of materials implemented by counselors and classroom teachers, said Bragg.

Lisa Rudacille, principal at E. Wilson Morrison Elementary School, reviewed the counseling lessons provided to WCPS students, which cover topics such as working hard for success, teamwork, and building positive relationships with peers, among others. She said the school counselors’ lessons are reinforced daily by teachers since counselors provide just five counseling sessions in the elementary schools for an entire year.

Kristin Frankel, a school counselor at Ressie Jeffries Elementary School, provided information on the Second Step program, which has been available to WCPS elementary students since 2015 and is only used as a supplemental resource in the guidance classes. “So, it’s not fully implemented,” Frankel explained.

With the Second Step program comes some training videos that are provided for anyone who is going to use the curriculum, said Frankel. The program does not address all the standards needed to be covered in WCPS so counselors have to create additional lessons in order to meet those standards. Second Step is also not taught by the teachers at the elementary school level, she said.

Frankel explained that each kit for elementary students includes 20-25 lessons on grade levels K-5. The kits start on the skills for learning — for example, being respectful, focusing attention, listening, being assertive whenever asking for help — and then they move on to empathy to help students learn how to identify other people’s feelings, understand the perspectives of others, and show compassion.

Emotion management is another unit covered that includes work on calming anger, for instance. The final unit is problem-solving, Frankel said, and lessons vary depending on the grade level, such as dealing with problems on the playground or handling peer pressure.

“Since 2015, there have been no additional costs to use this program because it was a one-time cost to use this curriculum,” said Frankel.

Salins said there’s confusion about which version of Second Step is being used. She said the “most controversial” version is copyrighted 2020-2021. “Do our ES students not have access to this new material that parents are not allowed to view” because it is copyrighted material, asked Salins.

“That is correct,” answered Frankel, who said that WCPS students receive the 2015 Second Step Elementary Classroom Kits, “which are not the new digital program,” she said.

All counseling-related instruction information and materials are available online for the public and parents and guardians may schedule to meet with school counselors and principals to view any of the unit materials and lessons and have questions answered, Frankel added, and opt-out forms are also available.

Ballenger reiterated to School Board members that not every school in the division uses Second Step. For instance, Leslie Fox Keyser Elementary School doesn’t use it so parents would not receive information on accessing it, he said.

Maria Kisner, a counselor at Hilda J. Barbour Elementary School, and Raychel DeArmitt, a counselor at E. Wilson Morrison, also presented information on the other supplemental materials they use in their lessons, as did counselors from WCPS middle schools.

Parents may at any time contact their child’s school principal or classroom teacher to discuss any concerns, questions, and thoughts, or to schedule a meeting they might have regarding a lesson, standard, practice, or any other school-related topic, said Ballenger.

Click here to watch the first part of the School Board’s January 19 work session.

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Downtown Market

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Family Preservation Services

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Groups Recover Together

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The Studio-A Place for Learning

The Valley Today - The River 95.3

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Warren Charge (Bennett's Chapel, Limeton, Asbury)

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Warrior Psychotherapy Services, PLLC

What Matters & Beth Medved Waller, Inc Real Estate

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Woodward House on Manor Grade

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