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Warren County Public Schools plan special education improvements

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The Warren County School Board approved a move by the local school district to join a regional special education program and considered proposed budget items slated to further improve instruction and support for students with disabilities.

School board members voted unanimously during their Wednesday, January 5 regular meeting to permit Warren County Public Schools (WCPS) to join the newly formed Fauquier-Rappahannock-Warren Regional Special Education Program, a collaborative effort among school districts in the three counties to pool resources and seek state funding support.

The Fauquier-Rappahannock-Warren Regional Special Education Program would be able to receive funds from a Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) program that ensures equitable funding for students with specific needs throughout the Commonwealth, explained WCPS Director of Special Services Michael Hirsch to School Board members.

WCPS Director of Special Services Michael Hirsch explains new special ed program to School Board members. Photos and video by Mark Williams, Royal Examiner.

School divisions that are in a regional program may receive additional funds to support these populations, he said, with 58 of the 132 divisions currently receiving such extra support.

WCPS wants to partner with Fauquier and Rappahannock Counties to participate in a regional program to allow the school district the same opportunity to access those dollars, said Hirsch.

“This will allow us to tap into regional dollars that the state department of ed has allocated for Warren County that will support students with low-incidence and some specific types of disabilities,” Hirsch told School Board members during the action agenda portion of their meeting.

Hirsch also said that the three counties, and possibly Culpeper, will share professional development opportunities and collaborate to provide additional strategies to support students. One requirement is that WCPS have an administrator and school board member as part of the regional board.

According to the corresponding Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that accompanied the WCPS request to join the program, the purpose of the Fauquier-Rappahannock-Warren Regional Special Education Program is to serve students under certain identified categories of disabilities, including students with multiple disabilities, students with severe cognitive disabilities, and students with autism.

“Initial eligibility for services will be determined by the school division in which the student resides,” according to the MOU, which adds that the cooperating school boards, and any additional party, shall provide each fiscal year, on a pro rata basis, the necessary funds to establish, operate and maintain the regional program as determined during the budgeting process.

Hirsch told the School Board that regional program members put together an application and mailed it to VDOE and he was presenting it to board members last night to see if they also wanted to let WCPS join.

“It went before the regional board on Monday and they approved our acceptance pending your approval,” he said.

The regional program would be similar to Northwestern Regional Educational Programs (NREP), which provides cost-effective, quality programming for school-aged (K-12) students with autism, emotional disabilities, hearing impairments, multiple disabilities, and traumatic brain injury for the school divisions of Clarke County, Frederick County and Winchester City.

NREP programs are offered at the Senseny Road School just outside Winchester. NREP is governed by a Committee of Superintendents comprised from each of the divisions with the superintendent of Frederick County Public Schools serving as chairperson of the committee. Frederick County Public Schools serves as the fiscal agent for NREP. Fauquier County is the lead for the program Hirsch discussed WCPS joining.

“NREP operates a separate school, but that’s not our goal,” said Hirsch. “We want to collaborate with Rappahannock and Fauquier to create professional development activities for all of our staff at no cost and so that we can tap into the regional dollars to help support the programs we already have in place.”

“We feel our programs are competitive with any program in the Commonwealth and we want to access more dollars” to maintain them, he added.

The agreement to establish and operate the Fauquier-Rappahannock-Warren Regional Special Education Program was unanimously approved February 5 following a motion by Warren County School Board Vice Chairman Catherine Bower, and a second by School Board member Kristen Pence.

WCPS special education also was discussed during a work session held Wednesday night by Warren County School Board members as part of their review of the proposed FY 2021 operating budget for WCPS.

“We think special education will be our next accreditation problem,” WCPS Interim Superintendent Melody Sheppard said in starting off the work session.

To nip that issue in the bud, WCPS staff have devised a preliminary budget that includes proposed additions to the existing WCPS budget, such as:

• $231,833 for the Behavior Support Specialist Program to hire one clinician and four support coaches;

• $132,056 to hire two special education instructional coaches; and

• $170,938 to hire two Instructional Resource Team (IRT) specialists.

Sheppard said that WCPS has operated the Therapeutic Day Treatment (TDT) Program that was started several years ago in which the Medicaid-funded program brings in outside professionals to work with students.

However, Medicaid no longer funds the program to its previous level, “so we are finding ourselves with some additional behavior support needs,” said Sheppard. “We would actually like to have our own behavior support specialist program, and this would be the cost of that program.”

The proposed $231,833 total includes benefits for the five 12-month positions needed to run the program in-house.

“We have noticed an increase in behaviors in our classrooms,” Sheppard added.

For instance, one WCPS middle school used to have five TDT counselors at its height, said Sheppard, but now there is just one person who works two hours a day.

And because Medicaid funded the TDT Program, over the years it has increased work eligibility criteria, which now calls for a qualified mental health position that requires a four-year college degree.

“We feel that we can hire people at the instructional assistant level and provide them with a training course through our department and be able to support them with a clinician just as well as we can with the qualified mental health professionals,” Hirsch told School Board members during the work session. “There are a lot of TDT people out of work and we feel we could attract them at this level.”

Additionally, the proposed FY 2021 WCPS budget would add more than $2.84 million to the existing budget to fully implement teacher, instructional assistant (IA), and nurse pay scales so that working for Warren County would be more competitive for prospective employees compared to neighboring Frederick County, Va.

Currently, WCPS has roughly 119 IAs working throughout the school division. They have a huge impact in the classroom and between classes, said George “Bucky” Smith, WCPS director of personnel.

“Their jobs can be challenging in the different settings,” Smith said, “and may be quite difficult.”

The current scale isn’t competitive, he said, and IAs working for WCPS “have the skills and the talents to do this and they can find work that’s going to pay more, so we want to be able to reward them more.”

Therefore, the proposed IA scale starts at a yearly salary of $15,750 at step 0 (or, zero years of experience) and then with each year of experience, or step on the scale, the pay increases by 1.013 percent between the steps.

“So, IAs would each get a step, a one-and-a-third percent pay increase, and a one percent cost-of-living adjustment totaling a two-and-a-third overall increase,” said Smith.

Similar pay scale and step increases also are proposed for WCPS teachers and nurses.

“If we are able to move forward with what you see proposed in front of you, then we will have completed phase two and phase three of the teacher salary scale, which is phenomenal,” Sheppard said. “I’m very excited to say that.”

The entire proposed WCPS FY 2021 budget will be discussed again during a February 18 joint budget work session between the Warren County School Board and the Warren County Board of Supervisors, as well as during a School Board work session scheduled for February 19.

To see what else transpired during the School Board’s regular meeting and work session on February 5, watch these exclusive Royal Examiner videos:


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Front Royal Unites draws over 1,000 for anti-racism rally

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While there was yet to be an official crowd size estimate, it appeared that well over one thousand, perhaps between 1200 and 1500 people gathered at Bing Crosby Stadium off a flooded Eighth Street Bridge for the Front Royal Unites rally against racism early Friday evening, June 5th.

Oops, looks like I can’t get in this way – a huge crowd of demonstrators against racism and for unity across social and racial boundaries gathered at Bing Crosby Stadium early Friday evening, June 5. Royal Examiner Stills/Roger Bianchini – Royal Examiner Video/Mike McCool

Several organizers spoke to kick off what was planned as about an eight-block circular path march beginning westbound on Eighth Street to North Royal Avenue, left to Sixth Street, left on Commerce and back to Eighth and Bing Crosby Stadium. But with the heavy rains that began mid-afternoon suddenly flooding the bridge, the march detoured southbound on Crosby Road out of the stadium parking lot to Sixth Street and across Commerce to North Royal and back around to Eighth Street and ultimately back to the Stadium for closing speeches.

And while the rain was hard in the hours leading up to the rally, the skies lightened and the rain stopped about a half-hour prior to the rally’s 6:30 p.m. start.

The Front Royal Unites rally grew out of the nationwide reaction to the brutal and unprovoked videotaped treatment of George Floyd at the hands of four Minneapolis, Minnesota policemen in what some are equating to a modern-day lynching. All four officers were immediately fired upon release of a videotape of their collective action leading to Floyd’s death.

The message of Front Royal Unites was consistent …

Derek Chauvin, the white officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes as the black man plead for his life, saying he could not breathe and was dying, has been charged with 2nd Degree Murder and the other three have been charged with complicity in 2nd Degree murder and related manslaughter charges.

And while violence has been an issue from both demonstrator and police at some consequent demonstrations across the country, the Front Royal crowd was peaceful, the message was “Love, Love, Love – not hate”.  As the march began a spirit of unity seemed prevalent between demonstrators and a combined local law enforcement presence of Front Royal Police and Warren County Sheriff’s Office personnel as both crowd and traffic control, as well as supporters of the message of community unity across racial and uniformed/non-uniformed boundaries.

… including on the back of a kickoff speaker’s shirt – and the marchers remained peaceful, and focused on the message of a march against racism and for community unity.

A report from one person who participated in the entirety of the march told us the crowd remained peaceful, encountering some minor verbal harassment from a very small minority of onlookers along the way. Some pickup trucks sporting Confederate flags were also observed at some distance from the marchers, but there was no encounter between occupants and marchers observed.

See for yourself the message, the march’s outset, and conclusion in this exclusive Royal Examiner video and accompanying still photographs:




Front Royal Unites plans peaceful June 5 equality march

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Lord Fairfax Health District offers free COVID testing session in Woodstock

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The Lord Fairfax Health District (LFHD) will offer COVID-19 testing from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday, June 8, at the Shenandoah County Fairgrounds, 300 Fairground Road, in Woodstock. Five hundred tests will be available.

Testing offered will be the nasal swab sample that looks for the presence of RNA from the actual virus. It will be offered in a drive-through format. Participants will be required to provide consent for testing and contact information so that proper follow-up can occur.

“We selected this location for our first community testing session, due to the presence of several outbreaks in Shenandoah County, and a desire to reach out to members of the medically underserved community, many of whom live in the area,” said Dr. Colin Greene, District Director. “We are very happy to be able to offer these tests at no charge to the patient.”

LFHD will offer testing on a first-come, first-served basis, from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m., or until test supplies are exhausted, whichever comes first. Testing is available to anyone ages 10 years and older. All persons must remain in the vehicle, and no walk-ups will be tested. Those seeking tests should be seated near a window of the vehicle.

To protect yourself and healthcare workers, please wear a cloth face covering or mask. Please keep at least six feet of distance between yourself and other people at all times. Please tell the testing providers if you have any symptoms of COVID-19, including fever, deep cough, or shortness of breath, or believe that you may have been exposed to someone with COVID-19.

For more information, call the Lord Fairfax Health District at 540-459-3733.

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Town Talk: A conversation with Sgt Laura Gomez and Captain Jeff Holzbauer; new dogs tags, K-9 additions

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In this Town Talk, we’ll have a conversation with Sgt Laura Gomez and Captain Jeff Holzbauer from the Warren County Sheriff’s Office. Sgt Gomez is an Animal Control Officer and Captain Holzbauer is in charge of the Patrol Division.

The Warren County Sheriff’s Office Patrol Division has the primary law enforcement responsibilities of providing a wide range of services and to initiate a proactive approach when assisting the community.

The Animal Control Division provides enforcement of all animal control issues within the County of Warren and the Town of Front Royal. Animal law enforcement, including the methods of capture, confinement, and disposition of nuisance animals, both domestic and feral, requires that the animals be treated in the most humane manner possible. Warren County or Town residents who require the assistance of Warren County Animal Control are to contact the Warren County Sheriff’s Office at 540-635-4128 or in the case of an emergency, 911. This includes any questions dealing with wildlife matters.

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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Valley Health System welcomes new President and CEO

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Mark Nantz, Valley Health System’s new President, and Chief Executive Officer

Mark Nantz, Valley Health System’s new President, and Chief Executive Officer began work Monday in true COVID-19 style: appropriately distanced, wearing a face mask, elbow bumping new colleagues, and joining more than 6,000 coworkers to report a daily personal health attestation for the safety of patients and colleagues.

Certainly, neither Nantz nor his predecessor, Mark Merrill, anticipated making this major leadership transition during a public health crisis. Merrill’s retirement farewells and Nantz’s welcomes are occurring via email and video until it is safer to meet face-to-face and travel to Valley Health sites around the region.

During the Valley Health Board of Trustees’ nationwide search and comprehensive interview process with system, physician and community leaders, Nantz stood out as an accomplished and visionary healthcare leader with an impressive record of building advanced clinical programs and successful physician and community partnerships and improving patient satisfaction, quality metrics, and employee engagement at the local, regional and system levels.

“From the moment I first met with the search committee and then stepped on the Valley Health campus in Winchester, I knew I had found a place where people shared my commitment to improving the health and well-being of the community, especially those who are marginalized and under-served,” Nantz says. “During my interview process, every board member, every provider, every leader, and every staff member demonstrated a dedication and commitment to Valley’s Health’s mission of “Serving our Community by Improving Health”. It was clear to me that I had found a new place to call home and caregivers with whom I could join in serving the community.”

Nantz previously served in executive roles with Bon Secours Mercy Health, most recently as Chief Administrative Officer and Atlantic Group President; before that as Executive Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer at Bon Secours. He has also held executive positions at Carolinas Healthcare System (now Atrium Health) and Carolinas Medical Center–NorthEast, and leadership roles in the audit practice of a Big 5 accounting firm. A certified public accountant, Nantz holds a Master’s in Health Administration from Pfieffer University and is a Fellow in the American College of Healthcare Executives.

In his first video introduction to Valley Health employees this week, Nantz touched on what motivates him personally and what his priorities are as Valley Health’s CEO:

“Winston Churchill once said, ‘Healthy citizens are the greatest asset any country can have.’ I believe that with all my heart and it’s why I have spent nearly 30 years in not-for-profit healthcare. It is at the core of my call to serve in the ministry of care delivery. To be sure, I feel that each of us has been called to serve others by providing access to high quality, affordable health care, and an exceptional patient experience, regardless of whether or not those individuals have the ability to pay. I think we are called to treat everyone who walks through our doors with dignity and compassion and that we must respect and appreciate the unique set of beliefs and experiences that they bring to our organization. That’s what drives me and what gets me up in the morning.”

“These are challenging times,” Nantz continued. “The COVID pandemic has changed much about the way we provide care, how our community views healthcare workers…and even the way we live. You can be confident that Valley Health’s medical and executive leadership have taken steps to ensure the delivery of safe, quality care as we diagnose and treat those with COVID, as well as care for our other patients with emergent healthcare needs. Our health system will continue to respond and adjust in these changing and uncertain times, and we will endeavor to ensure financial stability for both individual employees and the organization as a whole.”

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Face masks are a labor of love for one local woman

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“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade” may be an old adage to some, but to Warren County resident Redz Castro Downes, it is a way of life.

Castro Downes, a Certified Nursing Assistant, is known to her family and friends as a kind-hearted person who always looks for ways to brighten the lives of those around her.

This pandemic has inspired me to learn how to sew and make the best out of a difficult situation,” Redz Castro Downes said recently. Here, she models a custom mask. / Courtesy photos

While caring for her husband, local attorney David Downes, during a recent illness, Redz realized that the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic was making it harder to find the face masks that were now required for wearing. She was especially concerned that her husband have adequate face-coverings as he recovered.

Having always wanted to learn how to sew, Redz decided to purchase a brand-new sewing machine and try her hand at making masks for her own family. “I’ve always wanted to learn sewing skills, and maybe make clothes for myself,” she said in a Wednesday afternoon telephone interview.

Undaunted by the fact that she did not know how to sew, Castro Downes stocked up on fabric at a local store, and downloaded a pattern to make washable, fabric masks.

In a short time, Redz mastered mask-making, each one taking less than 20 minutes from start to finish. Husband David and step-daughter Gayle have joined in, creating an assembly line. Gayle cuts out the mask pieces, David measures and cuts the elastic that forms ear loops, and Redz stitches the masks together.

Since the family began wearing their stylish masks, friends have taken notice and are asking if they can purchase the washable, cotton face coverings. So far, the Downes’ cottage industry has produced over four dozen masks, and the orders are pouring in!

Customers, such as Front Royal business owner town council candidate Betty Showers says the masks are “light, comfortable, adjustable and absolutely adorable!” She added that the masks were a great price and “I would recommend them to everyone.”

Especially popular among Redz’s customers is the plain black mask, with or without a Virginia Beer Museum logo. The first one was made for David, proprietor of the only beer museum in the commonwealth.

The Virginia Beer Museum mask is a popular design, and can be purchased at the museum when it reopens on Friday, June 5.

Redz says the proceeds from her mask sales will be split 50/50, with half of the money going to her family, who live in the Philippines and have been hard-hit by the pandemic. The other half will go to the Virginia Beer Museum, which is slated to reopen Friday, June 5 at 5 PM after being shuttered nearly three months.

The masks will be available for purchase at the museum, beginning Friday.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced earlier this week that all museums, theaters, and other tourist attractions across the commonwealth can re-open for business.

To order a mask: Message Redz Castro Downes or David Downes on Facebook Messenger.

VBM fabric masks $10 each, fabric masks $10 each or 2/$15

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Front Royal Unites plans peaceful June 5 equality march

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Citizens of Front Royal, Va., plan to come together tomorrow to make their voices heard in a peaceful protest of the institutional injustices against people of color across the United States.
The newly formed Front Royal Unites has organized a Friday, June 5 march beginning at 6:30 p.m. at Bing Crosby Stadium on E. 8th Street in Front Royal.

“It is important to remember to remain peaceful — there have been sustained reports of people showing up to agitate the outcome of this event,” wrote Front Royal Unites organizers in a statement released on Wednesday. “But together and through unity, we will not allow them to disturb our peace and take away the focus from the movement. We will lead by example.”

The Front Royal Unites event, like many across the nation and world, was spurred by the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minn., after a white police officer knelt on the black man’s neck for almost nine minutes while Floyd was handcuffed face down in the street.

Arrests and charges of four police officers followed. Derek Chauvin, the officer who pinned Floyd to the ground by his neck, was charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. But on Wednesday prosecutors charged him with a more serious count of second-degree murder.

Earlier today, a judge set bail for the other three former Minneapolis police officers charged in Floyd’s death at $1 million each, or $750,000 under certain conditions, including that they do not work in law enforcement or have any contact with Floyd’s family. The officers, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane, and Tou Thao have been charged with second-degree murder and aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter.

While the arrests and charges have been referred to as a good first step in bringing justice to Floyd and his family members, protests have been held throughout the U.S. and across the globe by people calling for larger changes that would end systemic racism, police brutality and other issues of inequality, such as those related to housing, education, employment, and healthcare for blacks and other people of color.

The mission of Front Royal Unites is to eradicate white supremacy, according to the group’s statement.

“We believe silence is complicit and injustices against minority groups must stop!” according to the group’s mission statement. “From the courthouse to the schoolhouse, bridges must be built and not burnt down. We want to ensure that regardless of your complexion, you are not feared, you feel safe, and you get equal footing. Together we are united. Together we are Front Royal.”
Front Royal resident Justin Thorne, an organizer of Front Royal Unites, said during a Facebook video that the group seeks “multiple changes for black lives,” especially in small towns.

Front Royal Unites organizer Justin Thorne of Front Royal spoke to group members in an online Facebook video earlier this week reiterating the need for a peaceful march.

“We are going to be the better people and try to make a change for the better,” Thorne said in his video. “We are protesting for black lives, for justice, and for unity. We need to educate people. We need to change this system.”

Earlier this week, Front Royal unites met with officials from the Town of Front Royal, the Front Royal Police Department, and the Warren County Sheriff’s Department to develop an agreeable plan for the march, including the route.

Front Royal Police Chief Kahle Magalis told the Royal Examiner that “meetings with Front Royal Unites worked out fantastically.”

In addition, a few of the police department’s officers, along with members of the local sheriff’s department, “will be taking part in the march” and walking alongside the participants, Magalis said.

“We are fortunate for those individual citizens within our community who have helped, are helping, and will continue to help to see this event through,” said Front Royal resident Samuel Leon Porter, a Virginia advisor and head of communications for Front Royal unites.

The rain-or-shine event begins at 6:30 p.m. and will start and end at Bing Crosby Stadium, wrapping up around 8:30 p.m. A rally, several speeches, and a cookout will take place at the stadium following the march. The event is free to the public.

Among the scheduled speakers at the stadium following the march is Front Royal Councilwoman Letasha Thompson, a life-long Front Royal resident.

“Everyone has the right to protest,” Thompson posted June 3 on the Front Royal Unites site. “The key here is to remain PEACEFUL even if someone tries to provoke you. I’m looking forward to a peaceful and UNIFYING event where we all stand UNITED.”

Other speakers include Porter, a retired member of the U.S. Navy; local community leaders Kenny Sonnie and Gene Kilby; and Kori Morris, the volunteer coordinator for Front Royal Unites. The master of ceremonies is Stevi Hubbard, who is head of community relations for Front Royal Unites.

Porter said that for residents concerned about the COVID-19 pandemic, they may still participate by parking their vehicles at the stadium where they will be able to hear participating speakers being broadcast over the stadium loudspeakers.

And while members of Front Royal Unites have received some negative comments, Thorne urged participants not to have that same mindset and to instead remain positive, peaceful and focused.

“Prepare yourself mentally to hold it all in,” Thorne said on his video. “It’s very important. This is a peaceful protest and it needs to stay peaceful so that we can get our point across.”

Front Royal Interim Town Manager Matt Tederick said he thinks the march and rally will be successful. “I have every hope this will be a peaceful event,” Tederick told the Royal Examiner this evening.

The Front Royal Unites march will begin and end at Bing Crosby Stadium.

Watch this exclusive Royal Examiner video with Front Royal Unites organizers:

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