RICHMOND, Va. – Krysti Albus taught multiple subjects for 20 years and now teaches early childhood special education. She saw many colleagues leave the classroom in the middle of the year for better-paying corporate jobs.
“What we have had to go through to have a net income of 30-some thousand dollars a year, but to also have the increased expectations that we have had to have during this pandemic, has been unreal,” Albus said.
Schools in Virginia are facing a critical teacher shortage, according to Adria Hoffman, president of the Virginia Association of Colleges and Teacher Educators.
The teacher shortage has resulted in about 1,000 to 1,200 unfilled positions statewide, according to Hoffman.
“It’s not just about how many teachers are we missing, but also how many human beings who care about kids and understand human development and child development,” Hoffman said.
Teacher shortages were something the state grappled with before the pandemic. Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe said in a 2018 Washington Post article that the “teacher shortage will be the steepest education challenge” that his successor would face.
Teaching vacancies increased by nearly 62% from the 2018-19 school year to the 2020-21 school year, according to an article published by Virginia Mercury. That resulted in an increase from 877 vacant positions to 1,420.
Data from an annual Virginia Department of Education report in October 2021 showed over 2,500 teaching vacancies. The numbers have likely changed, but school divisions do not report daily, weekly or monthly data on unfilled positions, according to the VDOE.
School districts with the highest student populations, such as Fairfax County with more than 178,000 students and Prince William County with around 90,000, currently have hundreds of vacancies, according to representatives for both counties.
Fairfax County Public Schools, as of April, has around 200 teaching vacancies, according to media outreach specialist Jennifer Sellers. The school is “1% shy of being fully staffed,” Sellers stated.
The numbers are typical of trends over the last few years and don’t indicate a shortage, Sellers stated.
Prince William County Public Schools has 453 vacant positions. Prince William County hires between 700 to 900 teachers per year on average, according to Diana Gulotta, PWCS communications director.
Richmond City Public Schools, with over 21,000 students, has listed at least 90 open teacher vacancies this year.
Filling a “leaky bucket”
Schools are filling these open positions by hiring individuals who carry provisional licenses, according to Hoffman. The licenses allow individuals to start teaching without completing teacher preparation programs, according to Hoffman. They must obtain full licensure requirements before the provisional license expires. However, these individuals have significant attrition rates, according to Hoffman.
“Recruiting pools of people and making it easier for them to enter doesn’t actually solve the crisis,” Hoffman said. “I equate it to filling a leaky bucket.”
The pandemic also caused many educators to be out on sick leave for weeks at a time due to COVID-19, according to Hoffman. This led to schools utilizing staff members who traditionally don’t work in the classrooms to alleviate the shortage.
Office administrators, superintendents, professional learning coordinators, and curriculum specialists across the state were deployed to be full-time substitute teachers for months at a time, according to Hoffman.
The Virginia Retirement System is also being used as a critical teacher shortage recruiting resource. Employees who retired through a VRS position, and who hold a state Board of Education license can apply for temporary teacher or administrator positions only in designated critical shortage positions. They can continue to receive retirement benefits while teaching.
As the retention rate continues to drop, Hoffman said better working conditions, pay raises, and infrastructure improvements will likely help retain teachers.
Many schools need infrastructure improvements as they lack updated ventilation systems or windows that open, Hoffman said. This creates bad air quality, which can hurt those who are either immunocompromised or live with such individuals at home, according to Hoffman.
“Even losing 1, 2, or 3% of your workforce due to lack of safe and clean air quality makes an impact,” Hoffman said.
Lawmakers amended the state budget last year to put $250 million from the American Rescue Plan Act toward improvements to school ventilation systems. School districts were required to fully match their allotment.
Denise Johnson, associate dean of teacher education and community engagement at the College of William and Mary, conducted an exit interview of teachers in 2018. Teachers listed reasons for leaving such as lack of support from the administration, workload, and pay.
A third of teachers surveyed indicated that a pay raise would have been an incentive to stay in the classroom. However, 23% said that no incentives would have encouraged them to stay.
Teachers are leaving the classroom due to high-stress levels due to the pandemic, according to Shane Riddle, director of government relations and research at the Virginia Education Association.
Teachers are nervous that they will be blamed for students’ learning losses from being in and out of the classroom so often due to the pandemic, Riddle said. “How do you get students back to where they need to be if the state is going to hold them accountable for something they can’t control?”
Teachers need to feel like they’re being better supported by their administrators and school districts as a whole, according to Riddle.
Many parents started homeschooling their children during the pandemic because they felt there was “no real structure,” and they had lower confidence in the school system, according to Riddle.
“The writing on the wall”
The number of students being home-schooled throughout Virginia for the current school year is over 61,000, including students home-schooled with religious exemptions. That total number in the 2019-20 school year was just over 44,000. The number of students being home-schooled now is currently almost 40% higher.
Homeschooling jumped even higher the school year after the pandemic hit and decreased a little as vaccines became available and schools opened back up the classrooms.
“Most of the time, parents and teachers work together really well,” Riddle said. “I just think the pandemic added a different aspect to the parent-teacher relationship and then added some stress to it.”
Albus said teachers pivoted when schools closed in 2020 and found ways for students to learn and obtain materials virtually.
Teachers needed to be flexible because many students didn’t have the proper guidance or support at home to help with virtual education, according to Albus.
“You can imagine the amount of learning loss that we had because so many of these children were not monitored appropriately,” Albus said. “It had nothing to do with the parents, it just had to do with this whole horrendous situation.”
Children also have internalized trauma from the pandemic, which comes out in the classroom, according to Albus. It is stressful for teachers to deal with these behavioral issues, Albus said.
The school where Albus works received a mental health counselor this year, according to Albus. School counselors help prepare students academically and behaviorally. Mental health counseling provides additional support, Albus stated. Legislation passed in 2020 required local school boards to employ one full-time equivalent school counselor position per 325 students in K-12, effective with the 2021–22 school year.
“It gets to a point where you’re weighing your options and you’re like, is this really worth my net pay of $30,000 a year with all the student loans I have,” Albus said. “Or, why am I not getting paid more to do more of what they expect me to do since the pandemic.”
Erin Chancellor taught in multiple counties around Virginia but left the classroom in 2021 after six years, due to the stress and demands of the job during the pandemic.
Chancellor cited her top reason for leaving the profession “without reservation” was due to health security because teachers were called back to the classroom during the uncertainty of the pandemic before there was a vaccine.
Teaching is Chancellor’s lifelong calling, she said. But it was hard to continue dealing with the stress of her students’ academic performance dropping due to the pandemic. The constant switching between virtual and in-person learning environments affected student learning, she said.
“I don’t know if I have it in me to live with the pressure of having my students get test scores that are high enough to show progress and also meet criteria for X, Y, and Z,” Chancellor said.
Many teachers across different counties left the profession because of the difficulty of virtual teaching and the realization that the pandemic would have lasting effects in the classroom, according to Chancellor.
“I just feel like I saw the writing on the wall and I wanted to leave in time to get out and get into a new profession before everyone quit,” Chancellor said.
The “most important thing right now” is for teachers to be heard and be a part of the decision-making process for public education, she said.
“Education is just trying to catch up with the pandemic and figure out how to move forward with it,” Chancellor said.
Financial assistance for teachers
Del. Karen S. Greenhalgh, R-Virginia Beach, introduced House Bill 103. The measure seeks to provide an income tax deduction of up to $500 for teachers, counselors, and other educators that work a minimum of 900 hours, to help with curriculum, supplies, textbooks, and other educational equipment purchases. The bill continued to the special session when lawmakers could not agree on an amendment. The special session began on April 4, but the measure has not been picked back up.
House lawmakers proposed a 4% salary increase for public school teachers in 2022 and 2023 with a bonus of 1% for each year. If the House version is passed, the first salary increase would take effect July 1.
Lawmakers have not finalized the budget at this time, and negotiations are ongoing.
By Anna Chen and Reid Murphy
Capital News Service
Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.
Virginia’s Thanksgiving Roads: Safer This Year
Dramatic Drop in Fatal Traffic Crashes Over Thanksgiving 2023.
In a remarkable turn of events, Virginia has seen a significant decrease in traffic-related fatalities during the Thanksgiving holiday of 2023. Compared to the previous year, the state experienced a 53% reduction in fatal traffic crashes, a promising indicator of improved road safety. This development has brought relief to many and highlights the effectiveness of stringent traffic enforcement and public awareness campaigns.
A Safer Holiday Season
According to preliminary data, only nine people lost their lives in traffic incidents over the five-day holiday period, a stark contrast to the 19 fatalities recorded in 2022. A notable aspect of these tragedies was the absence of seat belts in most cases, underscoring the continued importance of basic safety measures.
Colonel Gary T. Settle, Superintendent of the Virginia State Police, expressed optimism about the reduction in traffic crashes. He emphasized the role of responsible driving in ensuring safety during the holidays and urged Virginians to maintain these habits as the winter season approaches.
Impact of Operation C.A.R.E.
A key element in this year’s traffic safety was Operation C.A.R.E. (Crash Awareness and Reduction Effort), an annual, state-sponsored initiative. During the 2023 Thanksgiving period, state troopers increased their presence and traffic enforcement, resulting in significant law enforcement activity. This included citing 4,520 drivers for speeding, 1,840 for reckless driving and arresting 89 individuals for driving under the influence. Additionally, 427 citations were issued for seat belt violations.
Traffic Statistics: A Positive Trend
The overall number of traffic crashes also saw a decrease, with state troopers responding to 1,359 incidents—a reduction of nearly a hundred compared to 2022. Out of these, 137 crashes resulted in injuries. This decrease is a testament to the heightened enforcement and public awareness efforts.
It’s also noteworthy that the fines collected from these summonses contribute to Virginia’s public welfare, with funds going towards court fees and the state’s Literary Fund, which supports public school construction, technology funding, and teacher retirement.
The 2023 Thanksgiving holiday has positively changed Virginia’s roads, marked by a significant decrease in fatal crashes and overall accidents. This improvement is a result of collective efforts in enforcing traffic laws and promoting road safety. As Virginia moves into the winter holidays, the lessons and successes of this period serve as a blueprint for continued vigilance and responsibility on the roads.
Abortions Increase in State Since Roe Overturned; Virginia Border City Remains a Refuge
RICHMOND, Va. – The twin Bristol cities share a name and a state line, but abortion accessibility changes just over a 1-mile span.
Abortion is illegal in Bristol, Tennessee, but down the road in Virginia, a clinic provides abortions. The Bristol Women’s Health Clinic relocated to Virginia after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn an almost 50-year decision that protected a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion.
The number of abortions administered in Virginia has increased since Roe v. Wade was overturned in June 2022, according to analysis of data from the state health department and the Society of Family Planning.
“It was started because of the need,” said the clinic’s administrative director, Karolina Ogorek. “It wasn’t anything other than the fact that a mile and a half down the road, the services we provide are illegal.
The majority of the clinic’s patients are from out of state. All of the states that touch Virginia have completely banned or restricted abortion except Maryland, which drove travel to the last Southern state where access remains.
Reproductive choice also drove voters to the polls in Virginia and other states. Turnout was high in Virginia at almost 40%, though not as high as the last time in 2019 when all the Virginia General Assembly seats were on the ballot.
Kentucky and Ohio voters also signaled strong support for abortion access. Kentucky re-elected a Democratic governor whose opponent strongly opposed abortion, and Ohio voters supported a referendum to enshrine access in the state’s constitution.
Virginia Democrats picked up a slim majority they will have for the next two years. They delivered on their campaign promise and pre-filed an amendment to the state’s constitution on Nov. 20 that would secure reproductive freedom and protection — but it has a long, procedural way to go.
For now, Virginia remains a refuge for women whose choice has been restricted in other states.
The ‘hardship’ of travel for medical help
Tennessee had a trigger law to ban abortion, meaning they had a law in place to ban abortion weeks after Roe was overturned completely. It slipped through a budget negotiation late at night.
That led to an influx of patients from Southern states. People visit the clinic from as far away as Louisiana, according to Ogorek.
“There is not a single person that ever thinks they are ever going to make this decision until you have to,” Ogorek said.
She wishes more people understood the hardship of such a journey.
“Not just for the women but their entire family,” Ogorek said. “It has such a big effect on more than just one person.”
About 55% of women at Ogorke’s clinic are at or below the poverty line, she said.
“The decision to terminate a pregnancy is not for everyone, and we recognize, and we support that,” Ogorek said. “Unfortunately, people who are anti-choice will never support a choice.”
She said that abortion restrictions are not a good idea because a 12 or 15-week restriction usually turns into an outright ban.
Protesters outside of Ogorek’s work are nothing new. The office provides patient escorts and security to help women get into their clinics.
Other help offered
Anti-abortion protesters who gather almost every day outside of Bristol Women’s Health Clinic hope to connect women with other resources.
David Gerrells lives in Tennessee. He considers abortions a murder that goes against God’s will. His church hopes to convince women that they are already a parent and not to go through with the procedure.
“It makes us angry and sad and hurt for the ones that are lost – not just the babies but for the mothers, the fathers,” Gerrells said.
His church, Christ Bible Church, and other groups want to help through various ministries and organizations. They provide money, homes, support, and community to women, according to Gerrells.
“We want these people to raise their own children, but we’re very big on walking alongside them,” Gerrells said. “But, more importantly, they need to understand what it is to walk with Christ.”
Orville Fisher has spoken against abortion for about 15 years. He works with the international organization 40 Days for Life. An abortion ban would be positive for Virginia and its citizens, he said.
Fisher recommended the Pathways Pregnancy Resource Center across the Tennessee border, which helps pregnant women.
The resource center was contacted multiple times but said they could not do an interview until next year.
Enshrining abortion into the state constitution
Del. Rodney Willett, D-Henrico, is “absolutely in favor of choice of” and access to abortion.
“Anecdotally, we also know women are flying into Virginia or driving long distances into the state to get these services,” Willett said.
The option for medical services in Virginia is fortunate, he said, although anything but convenient.
“For a lot of women, it’s an absolute hurdle they can’t clear because of the expense,” Willett said.
He said they have to pay for transportation, take off time for work, and find someone to travel with them.
Willett voiced concerns about the state losing doctors and women’s health care providers if the 15-week restriction proposed by state Republicans went into effect.
“What you’re seeing in other states where abortion is heavily restricted or outright banned, a lot of the states are also putting criminal penalties in place for the providers,” he said.
Ogorek recalled how healthcare providers were “cautiously optimistic” before the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case that overturned Roe.
“After Roe fell, we were devastated,” Ogorek said. “Clinics closed.”
She shut down her Knoxville practice, which she said was “flourishing.”
“I think what is sad is that, just we’ve lost a lot more lately than we won,” Ogorek said. “That’s the hard part.”
Ogorek will keep her eyes on the General Assembly and continue to encourage people to vote.
“If they impose a 15-week ban, I will do whatever I have to do to keep us open for as long as we can stay open,” Ogorek said. It’s just not a question. Until that very last minute that somebody tells me I have to shut my doors, I won’t.”
VCU InSight journalist Brigette Kelly contributed to this report.
By Sahara Sriraman/Capital News Service
Video by Brigette Kelly/VCU InSight
Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia. VCU InSight is the capstone broadcast news program.
Virginia War Memorial and Navy League to Host 82nd Commonwealth’s Pearl Harbor Day Remembrance Ceremony
The Virginia War Memorial and the Navy League of the United States, Richmond Council, will co-host the 82nd Commonwealth’s Pearl Harbor Day Remembrance Ceremony at 11 a.m., Thursday, December 7, 2023. The annual ceremony will be held outdoors in the Memorial’s Shrine of Memory – 20th Century at 621 South Belvidere Street, Richmond, VA 22330. The public is invited and encouraged to attend.
Keynote speaker will be Commander Dennis Bussey, U.S. Navy (Retired), the son of career Navy Chief Petty Officer Joseph Bussey, who was aboard the battleship USS California in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Commander Dennis Bussey is a Civil Engineering graduate of the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis. After graduation in 1969, he found himself leading a group of “Seabees” in Da Nang, South Vietnam. He and his wife, a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps, retired to Richmond after active duty, where he founded the James River Hikers and is a noted historian.
The 82nd Commonwealth’s Pearl Harbor Day Remembrance Ceremony will include the presentation of wreaths in memory of the Virginians who died on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941 when the forces of Imperial Japan attacked U.S military bases in Hawaii. More than 2,400 Americans died and more than 1,100 were wounded during the surprise attack. Of those killed, 41 were listed as native Virginians.
“The name of each Virginian who perished on that fateful day will be read and remembered with the tolling of the ship’s bell from the guided missile cruiser USS Virginia (CGN-38), which was decommissioned in 1994,” said Dr. Adam J. “Jay” Fielder, president of the Navy League’s Richmond Council, who will serve as Master of Ceremonies for the annual program. The bell is on permanent display at the Virginia War Memorial.
“We are pleased to continue the tradition of co-hosting the Commonwealth’s Pearl Harbor Day Remembrance Ceremony with the Navy League here at the Virginia War Memorial for the 82nd consecutive year,” said Virginia War Memorial Director Dr. Clay Mountcastle. “We hope many of our fellow citizens will join us to honor and remember our fellow Virginians and all Americans who died during the surprise attack which led to the United States entering World War II. As the ceremony is an outdoor event, we suggest attendees dress accordingly.”
The Memorial will be open to the public from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. on December 7. The Virginians at War documentary film Pearl Harbor will be shown all day in the Reynolds Theater and visitors can visit the Medal of Honor Gallery, Veterans Art Gallery and other exhibits.
For more information about the 82nd Commonwealth’s Pearl Harbor Day Remembrance Ceremony, please call the Virginia War Memorial at 804.786.2060 or visit www.vawarmemorial.org or www.dvs.virginia.gov. There is no admission charge to the Memorial or for this event. Parking is available at the Memorial and visitors should arrive by 10:45 a.m. to attend the ceremony.
Virginia is Banking on Data Centers, But Some Say Growth Should Be More Deliberate
RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia is home to the largest data center market in the world, but citizens and lawmakers have urged leaders to temper the onslaught of development and consider the impact.
Data centers have brought hundreds of millions in tax revenue and thousands of jobs to Northern Virginia and, increasingly, other areas of the state. However, among environmental groups, there is mounting concern that the industry’s rapid growth might offset climate goals laid out in past legislation.
Data centers are physical locations that power online activity “in the cloud,” according to the Data Center Coalition. According to the group’s president, Josh Levi, the centers support online activities that individuals, governments, organizations, and businesses of all sizes do every day.
The growth of the industry shows no signs of slowing. Gov. Glenn Youngkin announced a deal with Amazon Web Services in January to establish multiple data center campuses across the state. The company plans to invest $35 billion in Virginia by 2040.
Amazon Web Services filed in September to develop two campuses in Louisa County, including a seven-building data center campus, Lake Anna Technology Campus. The campus would occupy almost 2 million square feet of Lousia County’s land, including about an acre of wetland.
“These areas offer robust utility infrastructure, lower costs, great livability, and highly educated workforces and will benefit from the associated economic development and increased tax base, assisting the schools and providing services to the community,” Youngkin stated about the partnership with Amazon Web Services.
The state also developed a new incentive program to help clinch the deal. According to the recently passed budget, An amount not exceeding $140 million in grant money will go toward the company and end no later than 2044. The grants help with infrastructure improvements, workforce development, and other project-related costs. The grant awards $8,642 for each new full-time job and $3,364 for each $1 million capital investment made the year before.
Money and jobs
According to Levi, the two primary benefits of data centers are local revenue and job creation.
A Northern Virginia Technology Council report found that data centers provided approximately 5,500 operational and over 10,000 construction and manufacturing jobs in 2021. The report estimated that data centers were “directly and indirectly” responsible for generating $174 million in state tax revenue and just over $1 billion in local tax revenue around the state.
To date, every data center proposal in Virginia has been approved, according to Wyatt Gordon, senior policy and campaigns manager of land use and transportation with the Virginia Conservation Network.
According to Gordon, the high concentration of data centers in the state is a significant problem.
“If this is going to support global internet traffic, they need to be across the globe instead of just within one region of one state,” Gordon said.
Gordon said there is no future without data use, but the impacts of data centers need to be studied closely.
“I think our immediate concern is just, how are we making sure that the impacts of these data centers as they’re coming here are really being negotiated in a way that makes sense for Virginia,” Gordon said.
Del. Danica Roem, D-Manassas, and Sen. J. Chapman Petersen, D-Fairfax, worked with the Virginia Conservation Network on a bill this past session to have the Department of Energy study the impacts of data center development on Virginia’s environment and climate goals. The bill failed.
“It’s the biggest corporations in the entire world on one side, and then you have Virginia residents and a ragtag group of environmental folks on the other,” Gordon said. “So, I think you know who won.”
According to Gordon, data centers have three primary impacts on the environment: the space they take up, the groundwater demand for cooling, and their energy use.
According to Gordon, the facilities set to come out of Youngkin’s Amazon deal alone will be the size of 151 Walmart stores.
“That is massive amounts of land that are currently forests, farmland, wetlands, and are going to be bulldozed and converted into gigantic boxes hosting servers,” Gordon said.
Overall, Virginia's energy use has decreased due to increased energy efficiency, according to Gordon. However, according to a report prepared for the Virginia Department of Energy, data centers are a growing sector of electricity demand in Virginia.
According to the Energy Transition Initiative, data center electric sales will increase by 152% in the next decade, while other sectors will remain mostly the same. The forecast does not include projected electricity demand from electric vehicles.
The overall increase in Virginia electricity sales is forecasted to be 32% over 10 years and accounts for increased energy efficiency.
Dominion Energy filed an Integrated Resource Plan this year that anticipates a higher demand for electricity from data centers than originally planned. According to Gordon, Dominion recently filed permits for natural gas and coal power plants to meet data center energy demands.
According to Gordon, this contrasts the Virginia Clean Economy Act, which mandates that the state’s two largest utility providers, Dominion Energy and American Electric Power, produce 100% renewable electricity by 2045 and 2050, respectively.
“Despite being the only Southern state to pass such a huge climate law … that could all collapse because data centers are putting such a demand for power that there’s no way to supply them in a timely manner without relying upon dirty energy,” Gordon said.
Dominion Energy is “writing checks that Virginians can’t cash,” according to Julie Bolthouse, director of land use at the Piedmont Environmental Council. The group has looked at data center development in its service region since 2017.
Virginia is compromising its conservation and climate goals to meet in-service dates, with costs of development falling on utility ratepayers, according to Bolthouse.
“We have to, now, meet that in-service date that they committed to, and we have to build out this infrastructure with a rate schedule that’s unfair to us because we’re sitting here paying for all of this when it’s benefitting this one industry,” Bolthouse said.
A Dominion Energy representative did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.
According to Bolthouse, the utility and data centers negotiate electricity contracts together and then determine an in-service date when the utility will begin providing power.
“The industry needs to wait for us to be able to provide that power in a sustainable manner,” Bolthouse said.
Powering Virginia’s data centers with renewable energy is a realistic goal “over time,” according to Levi. Amazon Web Services, for example, plans to fund 18 solar farms in Virginia that would provide enough energy to power 276,000 homes by 2025.
Though companies can pursue clean energy in many ways, Levi said the challenge is how fast they can provide it.
“I think that’s where some of the hand-wringing around this issue is really coming from,” Levi said.
According to Kyle Hart, the Mid-Atlantic program manager at the National Parks Conservation Association, Prince William Digital Gateway is the “epitome” of everything the data center industry is doing wrong.
“We wouldn’t be where we are today, in terms of broad calls for industry-wide reform, if this terrible proposal hadn’t existed and had never sort of marched forward under a Democratic board majority for the past two years,” Hart said.
The group became involved in the conversation because of data center projects like Prince William Digital Gateway, which would share a border with Manassas National Battlefield Park, according to Hart.
Most recently, the Prince William County Planning Commission voted to recommend denial of all three rezoning applications involved in the Digital Gateway project. The debate moves next to the board of supervisors for a vote.
Hart and Bolthouse offered policy suggestions in a paper that provides an overview of data center development from a land use perspective. They suggested a study on the various impacts of development, a grid impact statement by the State Corporation Commission for all new data center-related power demand requests, and a framework for a regional review board to evaluate these large project proposals.
The data center proliferation in Virginia has outpaced any other state, which ultimately left Hart and Bolthouse without much framework to work off, Hart said. The suggestions are based on what they would want to see.
Elena Schlossberg is executive director for the Coalition to Protect Prince William County, a grassroots effort at the forefront of the resistance against the Digital Gateway. Schlossberg encouraged people to educate themselves on why they should care about the issue.
“You can make a difference by telling your neighbors,” Schlossberg said. “You can make a difference by getting on a bus and lobbying your state legislators that there needs to be some real oversight for an industry that is, up until this point, pretty unregulated.”
The data center debate is apolitical, according to Schlossberg.
“Money knows no ideological boundary, nor does doing the right thing,” Schlossberg said.
By Emily Richardson
Capital News Service
Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.
State Representation Tilts Toward Diversity With Historic Numbers
RICHMOND, Va. — The votes are counted, the committees are set, and even the first bills are filed as Virginia’s General Assembly prepares to gavel in early next year. It’s a new slate of legislators more representative of the state’s citizens.
Major gains for Black History
Even in America’s longest-serving state legislature, many firsts are still coming with this next class.
The House and Senate will have Black leadership for the first time when it convenes on Jan. 10.
Del. Don Scott, D-Portsmouth, will be Virginia’s first Black House Speaker. Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears has been the presiding officer in the Senate since 2022. She was the first Black woman elected to a statewide office in Virginia and the second woman.
Virginia’s Black community makes up just under 21% of the state’s population, according to the 2020 U.S. Census. Legislative representation will be slightly higher at just under 23%.
Voters elected 32 Black legislators out of 140 seats: 25 delegates and seven senators. All but one is a Democrat. The total includes two delegates who identify as more than one race.
Virginia was once the “cradle of the Confederacy,” but that time is over, Scott said.
“Virginians are ready to move on,” Scott said. “They’re not looking at race, they’re looking at who’s the best candidate.”
Scott added that his nomination as speaker is a great milestone for Black people all across the state, and they “can be proud of this day.”
Jatia Wrighten is an assistant professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University. She conducts research on Black women, state legislatures, and leadership.
“It is absolutely fascinating to think about a state that was one of the most exclusionary in the South,” Wrighten said during a post-election event organized by the Virginia Public Access Project. “And yet we have a state legislature that is one of the most diverse in the entire country.”
Black women representation
The 20 Black women who won the election represent a historic number. This is a little over 14% of the General Assembly.
This comes after a long history of exclusion, according to Wrighten.
“They’ve had to work outside of these institutions in order to gain equal access to political, social, and even economic opportunities,” Wrighten said.
Black women are the voter block that helps Democrats win, she said. Black women have impacted elections throughout the South, in presidential and state races.
“Black women have always been here,” Wrighten said. “It’s just the case that now Virginia actually allows Black women to actively participate.”
Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, in reference to a Martin Luther King Jr. quote, stated in an email that this new diversity is “neither automatic nor inevitable” — it was possible due to “tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”
“There are many who worked to make this day happen, and the ancestors are proud of those who are making a difference in our communities,” Locke stated.
Increased diversity and inclusion
According to Wrighten, research shows people feel better served when their legislators look like them.
“For the very diverse demographics that exist in the state of Virginia, what you should expect are feelings of satisfaction with elected members,” Wrighten said. “Especially as the diversity actually represents the population in this state.”
The number of female representatives stayed the same as last year, although a decade ago, there were only 25 in the General Assembly. Women account for a third of state representation, although they are more than half of the state’s population.
A total of 48 female legislators will represent the state. Democrats elected 38. Republicans elected 10.
For the first time in at least recent history, the number of white representatives will dip below 100.
According to a Virginia legislative website, about 100 African-American men served in the General Assembly between 1869 and 1890. The backlash to gains made during Reconstruction led to changes to the state constitution in 1902. Black citizens were disenfranchised as a result, and representation was limited.
L. Douglas Wilder, in 1969, was the first Black representative elected to the Virginia Senate since Reconstruction. After a term as lieutenant governor, he became the first Black governor in the U.S.
All races will see gains in representation this upcoming session, most at historic numbers.
- Almost a third of the upcoming state legislature will be people of color.
- Eight Asian American legislators won their respective races, half were incumbents. Five will serve as delegates, three as senators. The total includes two delegates who identify as more than one race.
- Four Latino legislators will serve in the House. Two nonincumbent Latino candidates won their respective races.
- Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, has served since 2014 and is the legislature’s only Palestinian American.
Virginia will welcome its first Iranian American legislator. Delegate-elect Atoosa Reaser from Loudoun County won House District 27.
Reaser’s family fled Iran during a revolution. She stated that recent events propelled her to run for office to ensure Virginians have the “same freedom and opportunity that brought her family to America in the first place.”
“Sadly, women, people of color, LGBTQ+ individuals, and others are seeing their rights taken away,” Reaser stated.
At least three Muslim legislators were elected. Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Richmond, was the first Muslim legislator elected to the state Senate in 2019. That representation grew by one this election.
The LGBTQ+ community also made gains.
All nine Democratic candidates won and were endorsed by the LGBTQ+ Victory Fund, a national organization that helps elect candidates. Two will serve in the Virginia Senate, and seven in the House.
Just under 4% of adults in Virginia are estimated to be LGBTQ+, according to the Williams Institute.
When Democrats held a majority in the General Assembly for two years, they ushered in several protections for LGBTQ+ citizens, including the Virginia Values Act that extended nondiscrimination laws to protect LGBTQ citizens better.
A constitutional amendment to repeal the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, though trumped by federal law, failed to pass its required second time when Republicans gained control in the House in 2022.
Virginia’s LGBTQ+ community has often been at odds with Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s updated model policies regarding transgender students in schools. These policies saw immense backlash from students, parents, and LGBTQ+ advocates — although many parents also supported the policies.
Advocates also criticized Youngkin’s administration for its quiet removal of the Resources for LGBTQ Youth page on the state department health website after an inquiry from a right-leaning media outlet.
“The legislature that takes office in January will look a lot more like Virginia than previous legislatures,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a professor of political science and director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington.
Diversity in the Virginia Republican party does not match the Democrats, though that isn’t for a lack of recent commitment, according to Farnsworth. Republicans nominated the most diverse executive branch in history two years ago, with the first Black lieutenant governor and a Hispanic attorney general.
“The Republican Party nominated a very diverse slate of candidates, but many of them were running in places where Democratic candidates had a huge advantage,” Farnsworth said.
Diverse, but still mostly divided
According to Wrighten, despite the steep learning curve that comes with the job, there is also an opportunity for change and new ideas.
“I think when you have all new freshmen legislators, I think we’re going to see some of these exciting parts of democracy actually come to realization,” Wrighten said.
Though more diverse, Virginia’s government remains mostly divided. Democrats have control, but with a Republican governor who holds a veto pen. They do not have the supermajority needed to overturn his vetoes.
Youngkin told reporters the day after the election that he was disappointed with the results but expressed optimism about working with what he described as a “pretty bipartisan-looking” General Assembly. He said legislators need to be dedicated to cooperation.
Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, a school teacher, said he is working with Youngkin on issues such as testing reform to help improve the quality of education for Virginia’s children. VanValkenburg will move to the Senate in January.
“I’m hopeful we can take the next step and get that testing reform put into law, and we can do right by our kids,” VanValkenburg said.
The issue of education rallied voters on both sides this year, according to Farnsworth.
“Polls show both Republican voters and Democrat voters were energized by education concerns,” Farnsworth said.
There are other opportunities for the parties to work together in a limited capacity, including education, mental health, and economic development, according to Farnsworth.
Incoming House Speaker Scott emphasized there is a chance for Youngkin to work with House Democrats.
“I think there are opportunities to work with the governor to continue to do the things that make it easier for everyday working-class Virginians to make a decent living,” Scott said.
By Vali Jamal
Capital News Service
Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.
All Virginia Wildfires Except Matt’s Creek Contained, Say Officials
After an unusually active fall fire season that has seen responders struggle to get multiple blazes under control, all of Virginia’s wildfires except for the Matt’s Creek Fire in Bedford County have been contained.
As of Monday night, the state had “no active wildfires” besides Matt’s Creek, said Virginia Department of Forestry spokesman Greg Bilyeu in an email.
Virginia’s fall fire season runs from Oct. 15 to Nov. 30, a period when dead leaves provide ample fuel for any spark. This year has proved especially challenging, with the Department of Forestry responding to 113 wildfires that have burned more than 12,000 acres since the season began. By comparison, the agency has said the average annual acreage affected by wildfires in Virginia is 9,500.
“We need no further proof that fall fire season has arrived with a vengeance,” said Chief of Fire and Emergency Response John Miller in a Nov. 16 statement. “We will remain vigilant to protect people and property.”
Among the more serious conflagrations was the Quaker Run Fire in Madison County, which broke out Oct. 24 near the community of Syria and burned nearly 4,000 acres, including roughly 700 in Shenandoah National Park, before it was declared contained Nov. 17. In Buchanan County, the Rocklick Fire affected over 2,200 acres, while the Tuggles Gap fire in Patrick County and Rachel’s Chapel fire in Dickenson County both burned more than 1,000 acres each.
The Matt’s Creek fire remains the largest blaze of the season, having spread to over 11,000 acres. Midday Wednesday, Bilyeu said the fire was 57% contained. Located in the Jefferson National Forest, that fire is under federal jurisdiction, with a large-scale response managed by the U.S. Forest Service.
Significant rain across the commonwealth Tuesday helped dampen Matt’s Creek as well as other wildfires. The U.S. Forest Service reported an area in the fire’s range received 3.8 inches of rain yesterday.
“Did all this rain put the fire out?” the agency wrote in a Facebook update. “Not completely. But it helped! Firefighters continue to patrol and monitor the fire area and are working to put out the stumps and logs that are still smoldering.”
Bilyeu said Wednesday that “the rain was very important in helping weaken all fire activity and preventing flare-ups and new starts.”
“Virginia has experienced drought conditions, so the rain was extremely welcome,” he said.
In Richmond Wednesday, Gov. Glenn Youngkin, too expressed gratitude for Tuesday’s precipitation.
“I also want to stop for a minute and have a moment of appreciation, thanks and a big amen for the rain yesterday. It was a big moment. We needed it,” he said at the beginning of a traditional tribute ceremony involving Virginia’s Mattaponi and Pamunkey tribes. “It also allowed us to fully contain the forest fires and wildfires burning across Virginia. So we’re just going to have a moment of silence for rain.”
Bilyeu said Virginians should continue to take extra care and check with local officials for the latest burn ban information before planning any outdoor fires.
by Sarah Vogelsong, 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: email@example.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.