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ALEXA WELCH EDLUND/Times-Dispatch  

The new middle school in South Richmond is expected to cost more than $57.3 million, city records show. Three city schools are slated to open in the fall of 2020.


MARK GORMUS/TIMES-DISPATCH  

Vice President Mike Pence gestured to supporters at Patriot Industries in Louisa County before heading to Virginia Beach.


Plus
Longtime Chesterfield County airport operator gets approval for expansion

A longtime operator at the Chesterfield County Airport is building more hangar space to accommodate its growing business after a divided Board of Supervisors backed the proposal.

Dominion Aviation plans a new hangar covering at least 10,000 square feet at the northern ramp of the airport, which the company’s president and CEO said is sorely needed for a growing fleet of aircraft it operates and maintains for corporations and private individuals.

“Just a single large corporate aircraft like the one we added to our fleet last month will generate over $100,000 in taxes and fuel flowage fees to the county annually,” Dominion President and CEO Mike Mickel Jr. told supervisors in an Oct. 23 presentation. “More of these larger aircraft are on their way, and we need space to accommodate them.”

Dominion has been a fixture at the airport for decades, having been picked by the county to be the airfield’s sole fixed-base operator in 1991. Supervisors voted 3-2 in October to allow a new hangar north of the terminal at the airport, northwest of the spot where state Routes 10 and 288 come together.

The second part of the agreement, which still has to be formally signed in the coming months, would allow Dominion years from now to move its operations to one or more new hangars built on the southern end of the airport property. That part of the plan is contingent on securing state funding for infrastructure improvements in that area and on an environmental review.

The supervisors’ vote last Wednesday came nearly a year after another split decision to allow a second fixed-base operator, Richmond Executive Aviation, to set up a flight school, fuel sale and aircraft management business at the airport. That business, also called REA, held a ceremony in early October formally marking the beginning of work to construct two new hangars at a spot on the northern ramp next to where Dominion will build its own new hangar.

Mark Hackett, the chief executive officer of REA, said he’s worried about potential headaches that could arise from having both fixed-base operators next to each other. Hackett said he’s worried that Dominion could have to ask his company to shift around his company’s aircraft as Dominion moves aircraft from its fleet into and out of its new storage hangar.

“Logistically, it could be a nightmare,” Hackett said in a telephone interview.

Hackett said the county did not provide his company adequate notice about the plans for a new Dominion hangar near REA’s operations, adding that the county would not let his company submit a counterproposal.

Scott Zaremba, a deputy county administrator, said the county’s contract with REA requires that company receive notice of a new fixed-base operator opening up at the airport, something that he said does not apply to Dominion, which has been at the airport for decades. Zaremba added that Dominion has “been quite public about its interest in expanding its business at the airport.”

At the Oct. 23 hearing, Hackett urged supervisors to delay their decision, suggesting it would be better to keep both fixed-base operators in different parts of the airfield. Hackett suggested that perhaps Dominion could use facilities currently used by Virginia State Police aircraft in another spot on the airport for extra hangar space rather than moving into the northern ramp.

Mickel said during a recent tour of the airport that his company has been negotiating with the county since late 2013 to try to expand its hangar facilities at the airport where it currently has two storage hangars for larger corporate planes and another hangar where it performs maintenance on smaller planes.

Mickel’s company tried unsuccessfully to get county approval to build its own hangars at the hangar sites where REA has broken ground on the north ramp.

Zaremba told supervisors that Dominion generates about $353,000 for the county from land leases, rent, personal property taxes on planes and other revenues. That would increase by $290,000 under the new agreement with the county for additional hangar space, Zaremba said, adding that figure did not include any land leases and rent for any development on the southeast part of the airport.

“It is in the best interest of the county for additional hangars to be built so new aircraft will not relocate elsewhere, costing the county substantial personal property taxes and fuel sales,” Zaremba said.

Some supervisors were not ready to vote on Dominion’s plans. While Supervisors Leslie Haley, Steve Elswick and Dorothy Jaeckle voted to give the staff the go-ahead on a new lease with Dominion to construct the north ramp hanger and a new 30-year fixed-base operating agreement, Supervisors Jim Holland and Chris Winslow voted against doing that. A separate motion by Holland to delay the vote was defeated. Holland said he did not see any reason to “rush through” a vote on the proposal.

“I think we needed more time to study and review the agreement,” he said in an interview.

Zaremba said in an interview that he expected work on Dominion’s northern ramp hangar to start early next year and to be finished by the summer. Work is years away on the second phase of the agreement, where Dominion would build one or more hangars on the southeast ramp as well as offices. The deputy county administrator said that part of the deal still needs to undergo an environmental assessment by the Federal Aviation Administration.

For that plan to become a reality, the county also would need to secure state funding to pay for the vast majority of the $5 million to $6 million that would be needed to put down tarmac, access roads and parking spaces on the southeast part of the airport, Zaremba said.

Under the proposal, Dominion could get up to 10 years added onto its new 30-year fixed-base operating agreement after it invests at least $1.8 million in new buildings at the airport as part of its expansion.

Mickel said during a recent tour of the airport that approval for new hangar facilities will keep his company at the airport, adding that his growing business had been looking for space at other airports to house aircraft.

“I’m just saying I had a Plan B that I’m glad I didn’t have to use,” Mickel said.


Plus
breaking
Lack of competitive bid causes Richmond to pay too much for new schools, contractor group says

In July, a group of Richmond officials told elected leaders that the cost of building three new schools was increasing again.

But there was also some good news: Richmond’s construction costs per square foot were still slightly below those of neighboring Chesterfield County.

However, Richmond’s construction costs to build its three new schools are significantly higher than Chesterfield’s. And to reach its comparison, Richmond added millions of dollars onto Chesterfield’s construction costs.

While Chesterfield is building three elementary schools for about $75 million, Richmond is spending $71 million on just two elementary schools. An analysis from the Virginia Contractor Procurement Alliance found that the city is paying significantly more per square foot for schools than neighboring Chesterfield.

The alliance said a major factor driving that higher cost is the city’s decision not to use a competitive, sealed bid for school construction, as Chesterfield and Henrico County do.

Jack Dyer, president of the alliance and owner of Gulf Seaboard, a general contractor in Ashland, said the group of small to midsized contractors used the Freedom of Information Act to analyze comparable elementary and middle school construction costs in Chesterfield and Suffolk to the schools Richmond is building through a method of procurement called “construction manager at risk.”

When government uses a competitive, sealed bid, it must award the contract to the contractor who proposes to do what the government wants at the lowest cost. Under construction manager at risk, the government asks contractors to submit their qualifications to do a project and then uses a variety of subjective criteria — not just lowest cost — to pick the winner.

Dyer said during an interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch that this is the first time he is making his concerns public. The analysis of schools is as close to an apples-to-apples comparison as his group has found, he said, and had Richmond used competitive, sealed bidding, the city could be building four schools for what it’s spending to build three.

“When you eliminate competition, the cost of your project is going to increase,” he said.

Richmond’s school facilities problems go back decades, but years of deferred maintenance have left many schools in feeble shape.

Under the process the city used, cost is 20% of the selection criteria. Other factors, according to city records, include reference checks, experience, the developer’s approach to managing a schedule, and who is on the developer’s staff.

“It’s an easy type of procurement,” Dyer said, which actually involves no risk for the contractor. “But there are dollars associated with that type of construction.”

Robert Stone, interim chief capital projects manager for the city; Betty Burrell, the city’s procurement director; Robert Steidel, the city’s deputy chief administrative officer; and Lincoln Saunders, chief of staff to Mayor Levar Stoney, defended their decision to use an alternative procurement method on numerous fronts.

First, they said, Richmond needed to open its three new schools in fall 2020. The process the city chose allows a quicker construction start, while using a competitive, sealed bid would have taken up to a year longer, they said.

City officials also said they chose to build to environmental standards that cost more than Chesterfield schools, which do not seek the same certification. And they said building in an urban environment is costlier because of congestion around the sites and unexpected items under the ground.

The contractor alliance used public records to calculate the known construction costs per square foot of new schools in Chesterfield and Suffolk and the known costs per square foot in Richmond.

Chesterfield’s new school construction costs, as approved, for elementary schools from 2017 to present average $250.20 per square foot, according to the analysis. For Richmond’s two new elementary schools, the city is paying $324.56 per square foot. According to the Virginia Department of Education, the statewide average for new elementary school construction in 2018-19 is $262.52 per square foot.

Since that analysis, there are newer figures.

City records show that the new middle school is expected to cost more than $57.3 million and George Mason Elementary School is expected to cost nearly $34.6 million. The costs of the new E.S.H. Greene Elementary are not finalized but are over $36.5 million.

In contrast, Beulah Elementary School in Chesterfield, which opened in 2018, cost $24.6 million.

Instead of building four of the five new schools outlined in the first five years of a School Board-approved facilities plan, the city is building just three. Woodville Elementary and George Wythe High remain open in poor condition with no set plans to be rebuilt.

City officials announced in March that the price tag to build the three schools had risen from $110 million to $140 million, and in July a city official announced that the estimate was up to $146 million. That leaves just $4 million from a meals tax increase the City Council approved in 2018, which was expected to generate $150 million for new school construction.

During the March disclosure, the city’s Burrell and Stone criticized the initial $110 million estimate, which was prepared by the former interim superintendent, saying it was too low given the bustling construction market in Richmond, among other factors.

City response

George Mason was almost closed in 2017 because of rodents, poor air quality and leaking bathrooms, among other problems. Greene and Elkhardt-Thompson Middle School are also in poor shape, with the new schools providing relief for the school facility itself and overcrowding in South Side schools.

With the widespread issues, school and city leaders have said they need to get as many students in new schools as soon as possible. Under the current construction plans, that’s the fall of 2020.

The city could not use competitive, sealed bidding “to be able to make the schedule to get the kids in, to be able to get started as soon as the money was available, because, remember, the money was available from the meals tax, and get everything done and delivered within a very, very tight timeline,” said Steidel, the city’s deputy chief administrative officer.

Stoney’s team estimated that had they not used the alternative process, the three new schools would probably not open until fall 2021 instead of fall 2020.

Stone and Steidel also said the city’s school development sites are packed over many foundations, something that adds costs to an urban area like Richmond that Chesterfield and Suffolk don’t have. The procurement process they used, city officials said, allows them to consider more than just cost when selecting a contractor, like the experience and staff of a contractor.

In comparing the city construction costs to Chesterfield’s, Stoney’s team added an increase for inflation. To that they added 6% to Chesterfield’s cost to account for the optional environmental standard Richmond is pursuing. And they added an additional 5% for “other factors” to Chesterfield’s costs. Only then, Richmond officials said, would the comparison be fair. And it showed that Richmond’s construction costs were actually lower than Chesterfield’s.

“We’re going to say you can’t necessarily come to an apples-to-apples comparison when you’re comparing two different school constructions in two different localities, with two different processes ... done at different times at two different places in the construction process,” said Saunders, Stoney’s chief of staff. City officials “used a process they felt was best for the schools and the kids in Richmond public schools.”

Another member of the contractor alliance, Tony Biller of Nielsen Builders Inc., based in Harrisonburg, said the use of construction manager at risk bids is increasing in localities in the Shenandoah Valley area. He said he finds it especially concerning when the schools being built are based on a prototype, as Richmond’s are.

“They’re using it as a convenience, not as a necessity, at the taxpayers’ expense,” he said of the alternative procurement method. And that has affected his business, he said.

It’s not just the contractor alliance raising questions about Richmond’s use of data.

After Steidel in July told officials Richmond’s costs were slightly below Chesterfield’s, the county’s school spokesman, Timothy Bullis, noted that Richmond arrived at its figures by assuming a cost of inflation even though the contracted price of Chesterfield schools had been set, and then adding the 6% for environmental certification Chesterfield did not pursue and 5% for the other factors.

“This is a what-if, apples-to-oranges comparison,” Bullis wrote of the city’s calculations. Chesterfield’s costs were nearly 16% lower than Richmond’s, he wrote.

Chesterfield uses a competitive, sealed bid because bids “are based on complete documents and provide contractors with a better opportunity to accurately estimate all costs,” Bullis wrote in an email for this story. “This provides a level playing field for all contractors, while also allowing the school division to determine what is fair and reasonable pricing by being able to compare contractor bids.”

The environmental certification Richmond pursues is called LEED and is done through the U.S. Green Building Council. Asked if building a LEED-certified elementary school costs more than not, Jenny Wiedower, senior manager for K-12 education at the council’s Center for Green Schools, said in a statement: “Building green does not have to cost more than building a conventional project.”

Contractor scores

The Virginia Contractor Procurement Alliance said state and local governments have increasingly used alternative options because the process is easier.

Under the alternative procurement, a government agency puts out criteria for a project and companies submit packages outlining their development experience. Government procurement officers then choose who gets the job based on criteria the government established.

In August 2018, the lobbyist for the contractor alliance, Matt Benka, sent a letter to Stoney asking him to procure at least one of the schools through a competitive, sealed bid, saying the comparison to the other schools would prove which method costs more.

For the three new Richmond schools, city and school officials ended up selecting large contractors: Howard Shockey & Sons in Winchester to build the new Elkhardt-Thompson Middle; S.B. Ballard Construction Co. in Virginia Beach to build E.S.H. Greene Elementary; and Branch and Associates in Roanoke to build the new George Mason Elementary.

The city chose Shockey to build the new middle school even while acknowledging that parts of Shockey’s proposed costs were higher than Ballard’s proposal, according to city records.

Ballard proposed certain costs of $756,723 less than Shockey, and also proposed a lower fixed fee than Shockey. In total, that means Ballard proposed more than $1 million less than Shockey to manage construction of the middle school, Dyer said.

“The taxpayer is paying close to $1.2 million more money to go with Shockey vs. Ballard,” Dyer said.

Stoney’s team said that doesn’t mean Ballard would have built the middle school for less.

“It’s unknowable as to who would have built the school for less,” said Stone, the city’s interim chief capital projects manager. “I don’t know that they would have built it for less, or more, or the same. It’s unknowable at that stage of that game. It’s an unknown and an unknowable.”

That’s why the contractor alliance wants local governments to use a competitive, sealed bid — because it requires government to go with the lowest cost to taxpayers, Dyer said. Otherwise, smaller companies like his end up getting shut out of doing public works while larger companies land contracts at higher costs, he said.

A Richmond review panel gave scores to contractors who were interested in building the three schools. For Greene Elementary, Shockey had a higher score. But the city chose Ballard.

Because Shockey stated in writing that it wanted to be selected for only one school — and won the contract for the middle school — Shockey was not available for selection by the city to Greene Elementary, Stone said.

A construction groundbreaking ceremony took place in December.

Consulting company

The city uses an international consultant, AECOM, for a variety of projects and asked AECOM to review the city’s school construction needs. AECOM recommended the city not use competitive, sealed bidding, according to records provided by the city.

On July 2, 2018, an AECOM vice president, Charles Malacarne, sent three separate letters to Donald Summers, the city’s capital projects manager at the time. Each letter contained three sentences. And for each school, the AECOM engineer said he had reviewed information supplied by the city.

“Based upon my experience as a Professional Engineer in construction and project management, with particular utilization of the Construction Manager at Risk delivery method; I find the only viable construction delivery method that will meet the end users’ schedule requirements is the Construction Manager at Risk method.”

Summers then wrote to Burrell, the city’s director of procurement services, to say it was AECOM’s recommendation that “the only viable construction delivery method to meet the school division’s schedule requirement of a September, 2020, opening is the construction manager at risk method.”

And then Burrell wrote letters “for the record” to say that using a competitive, sealed bid would be “neither practical nor fiscally advantageous” and that her decision to use the “construction manager at risk” was supported by the professional recommendation of AECOM.

The company is overseeing Richmond’s school construction.

The city also contracted with AECOM under former mayors L. Douglas Wilder and Dwight C. Jones, who preceded Stoney.

The consultant has been involved in overseeing school construction and also working on other projects like the Stone Brewing facility and Monroe Park redevelopment. At times, some City Council members have suggested AECOM’s work should be done in house to save money, but they have been in the minority.

AECOM got a new contract in 2016 that was renewed in 2017 and 2018. On April 1, Burrell, the procurement director, signed an $11.4 million contract with AECOM that lasts through March 2020.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was updated Nov. 14 to clarify the AECOM engagement with the City of Richmond.


Plus
featured
Pence rally in Virginia Beach underscores high stakes in Tuesday's elections

VIRGINIA BEACH — Vice President Mike Pence called for voters to elect Republicans in Hampton Roads to keep party control of the General Assembly, but he was looking beyond Virginia’s legislative elections on Tuesday to boost the re-election chances of President Donald Trump next November.

Pence’s 40-minute speech to Republican faithful at Kempsville Middle School on Saturday focused on the importance of Republican majorities in state legislatures to Trump’s agenda as the president seeks a second term.

“Republican majorities in statehouses have been with us every step of the way,” the former Indiana governor told a crowd of roughly 900 supporters who had waited hours for his appearance at a marquee rally to get out the vote by the party’s political base in one of Virginia’s most conservative regions.

Pence was happy to make the legislative elections about Trump, whose unpopularity according to public opinion polls has prompted Democrats to make the vote a referendum on the president. Some Republican candidates have tried to counter the Trump effect with appeals to voters on local and state issues rather than national politics, but not here on Saturday.

“We want to be there next year for our president,” said Del. Emily Brewer, R-Suffolk, who is seeking re-election in a reliably Republican district.

Pence was introduced by Del. Jason Miyares, R-Virginia Beach, who represents a Republican-leaning district and whose Cuban ancestry resonated with the vice president’s denunciation of a Democratic agenda that he and other speakers called socialist.

The vice president also extolled the virtues of a half-dozen Republican candidates for the House and Senate who face tough election fights against well-funded Democrats determined to take control of the General Assembly.

Republicans now hold 20 Senate seats to Democrats’ 19 and 51 House seats to Democrats’ 48, with one vacancy in each chamber.

Virginia is one of four states holding legislative elections Tuesday, but it is the only one with control of the legislature in the balance. As a result, Virginia has been a target of high-profile campaign stops — mostly for Democrats. On Sunday, former Vice President Joe Biden will campaign with Democratic hopefuls in Loudoun County.

The state witnessed a torrent of late campaign donations. The Virginia Public Access Project reported Friday that since Oct. 24, Democrats in House races brought in $2.1 million in last-minute donations, nearly three times what their Republican counterparts reported. In Senate races, Democrats reported nearly $1.2 million in last-minute contributions, nearly double what their Republican counterparts reported.

“California and New York are trying to buy Virginia,” said Tina Mapes, chair of the Virginia Beach Republican Committee. “We can’t let that happen.”

However, the Republican State Leadership Committee, which organized the rally Saturday, has given $3.2 million to Republican candidates in critical races, primarily in Hampton Roads and the Richmond area.

Trump administration officials have made clear that the stakes are higher than control of the state legislature. “It’s important for us to have a good showing in Virginia,” a senior administration official said in a media briefing last week in advance of Pence’s appearance.

Former Gov. Bob McDonnell, who led the last Republican ticket to win statewide a decade ago, said in an interview in Virginia Beach, “Attention is being paid in Washington to what’s happening down here.”

Former U.S. Rep. Scott Taylor lost his 2nd District seat last year in an election in which Democrats picked up three congressional seats, but he is running next year to unseat U.S. Sen. Mark Warner in an election that’s likely to focus mostly on Trump.

Taylor strongly embraced Trump and denounced the effort by congressional Democrats to impeach the president.

“We’re here today because we feel like our president is being mistreated,” he said in a fiery speech.

“We’re not being properly represented in the House and Senate at the federal level,” he said. “Let’s make sure it doesn’t happen at the state level.”

Before heading to Virginia Beach, Pence visited a business in Louisa County on Saturday to tout Trump’s trade policies. During the stop at Patriot Industries, an aluminum supplier, Pence planned to discuss how he thinks the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement will benefit the economy and American workers.

Louisa is in the district of Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th. She said in a statement: “I stand ready to keep working with the administration to expand export opportunities for our district’s small businesses, manufacturers and farmers.”

In his speech in Virginia Beach, Pence hammered at Democrats, especially Gov. Ralph Northam and Del. Kathy Tran, D-Fairfax, over their support of legislation this year to loosen restrictions on late-term abortions, which Pence likened to infanticide.

“This president and this vice president and the Virginia Republicans will always stand for the right to life,” he said.

Northam’s name drew jeers from the crowd. Before the rally, Dr. Ramona Austin of Pungo decried a racist photo that appeared on the governor’s 1984 yearbook page at Eastern Virginia Medical School, which they both attended. Northam initially apologized for appearing in the photograph that shows one person in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan robe, but denied it the next day.

“We’re concerned about the state,” said Austin, a volunteer at the rally who strongly supports Trump. “I’m embarrassed by our governor.”

Pence denounced Democrats on gun control, illegal immigration and compulsory union membership in unionized workplaces. He also warned that the elections on Tuesday are not just about which party will control the assembly in January but who will draw political district lines in 2021 under the next census.

“It’s not going to be enough to win the next election,” he said. “We have to win the next generation.”

Pence’s trip to Virginia Beach took him to perhaps the biggest battleground in this year’s campaign. While Henrico and Chesterfield counties also feature a host of hotly contested races, contests in Virginia Beach could determine control of the House and Senate.

Republicans are mostly playing defense in Virginia Beach in several big-money races: Republican Sen. Bill DeSteph is facing an aggressive challenge from Democrat Missy Cotter Smasal, who has focused on gun violence and DeSteph’s A rating from the NRA; the mass shooting at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center happened in DeSteph’s district.

Democratic Del. Cheryl Turpin and Republican Jen Kiggans are vying for another big Senate seat, that of retired Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach.

On the House side, Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, faces Democrat Karen Mallard, who last year lost a congressional primary to Elaine Luria, who went on to be elected to the 2nd District congressional seat. Mallard’s attacks on Davis over education and guns have so frustrated him that he reported her attack mailers as an in-kind donation to him on a campaign finance report. He said he uses them in his campaign by carrying them around to refute.

Mallard has been advertising on TV, while Davis said he does not have the money to do so.

Davis and Del. Chris Stolle, R-Virginia Beach, who faces Democratic challenger Nancy Guy, have both moved their campaign platforms toward more of a centrist position, Stolle by touting his vote to join Democrats last year in expanding Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act.

Kiggans has distanced herself from Trump in her Senate race, telling voters not to lump her in with him when they consider whom to vote for as their local state senator.

But while some Republicans in Virginia Beach have shifted toward the center in an attempt to appeal in a suburban environment, two others are running aggressive campaigns with anti-immigrant messages to appeal to the conservative GOP base.

Republican Shannon Kane, a former member of the Virginia Beach City Council challenging Democratic Del. Kelly Convirs-Fowler, attacked Convirs-Fowler by using her picture next to violent gang members and saying she is “putting our safety at risk.” The Democrat defeated Del. Ron Villanueva, R-Virginia Beach, two years ago.

Republican Rocky Holcomb, a former delegate seeking to regain the House seat he lost to Turpin in 2017, is also attacking his Democratic opponent, Alex Askew, on immigration.

Late in the race, Democrats decided to launch a TV ad against Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, who had not been thought to be at serious risk of losing his seat. Knight faces Democratic challenger Len Myers.

But Pence also urged Virginia Republicans not to forget the importance of this year’s legislative elections to next year’s presidential election.


Virginia
‘We should all be concerned’
'We should all be concerned': Virginia's literacy rates fall to record low levels, federal data show

Virginia’s student literacy scores have fallen to levels not seen in more than 15 years.

New data from the federal government released this week shows that reading scores have dropped substantially in elementary and middle schools. The results of the test nicknamed the “nation’s report card” confirm a problem that state testing has signaled for the past few years.

The scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, highlight a consistent drop in the performance on the state’s own reading tests and reveal that by eighth grade, two-thirds of Virginia students aren’t proficient readers.

State education leaders — who aren’t sure why the scores have dropped so much — are calling for $36 million to go toward new reading specialists. An Oct. 18 letter from Virginia’s K-12 education chief tells school districts to focus more on teaching students the basics of reading and writing.

“The latest NAEP results — coupled with the declines we have seen during the last several years on our state reading tests — underscore the importance of the efforts already underway at the state and local levels to strengthen reading instruction for all students,” Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane said.

Fewer than 2 in 5, or 40%, of fourth-grade students in the state are meeting the benchmark for what’s considered proficient in reading — a slightly higher bar than reading on grade level — down from 43% in 2017. In eighth grade, just 1 in 3, or 33%, of students are proficient, compared to 37% in 2017.

In fourth-grade reading, Virginia students posted an average score of 224, a 4-point drop compared with 2017, the last year the test was administered. The tests are scored on a 0-500 scale. The last time Virginia students fared that poorly on the test was 2003, when the average score was 223.

It was worse for middle schoolers.

Eighth-grade students in Virginia had a 262 average score on the reading test, a mark in line with the national average. This is the first time since 1992 — the furthest back that NAEP data is available — that Virginia eighth-graders haven’t exceeded the national average on the test. It’s also the worst average score recorded in the state since Virginia students started taking the test.

“We should all be concerned, parents and educators alike,” said Thomas Toch, the founding director of FutureEd, a think tank inside Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. “These foundational skills are critical to academic success and ultimately success in the workplace. The stakes are high. We need to keep working at this.”

***

Through the national assessment, states can compare themselves with one another or to the national average. It’s the largest snapshot of what U.S. students know and can do in various subjects.

Virginia’s struggles aren’t unique.

The average fourth-grade score nationally is down 1 point compared to 2017, while eighth-grade reading scores slid 3 points. Only one state — Mississippi — saw statistically significant increases in fourth-grade reading this year.

“The results are, frankly, devastating,” U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said in a statement. “This country is in a student achievement crisis.”

The NAEP test was first administered in 1969 to measure students’ abilities in math and reading. Virginia first participated in NAEP state-by-state testing in 1990. Scores of the test, administered every two years to a representative sampling of students — have been fairly stagnant over the past 10 years.

Roughly 4,600 Virginia fourth-grade students took the test along with about 4,300 eighth-graders. The results are not reported for specific school districts or schools. Unlike in Virginia, 27 of the country’s largest school districts, such as New York City and Los Angeles, require all students to take the NAEP test.

Virginia is among 17 states or jurisdictions where fourth-grade reading scores fell and 31 that saw lower eighth-grade scores.

“Eighth grade is a transitional point in preparing students for success in high school, so it is critical that researchers further explore the declines we are seeing here, especially the larger, more widespread declines that we are seeing in reading,” said Peggy Carr, the associate commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the test.

The new data comes as state and local officials grapple with diminishing performance on the state’s own reading tests.

Virginia’s annual release of state test results in August showed that more than 1 in 4 students in the state aren’t reading on grade level by the end of third grade, a test seen by experts and research as an important predictor of students’ future academic success. Those scores have been on the decline for three straight years.

Fourth-grade reading scores have dropped two consecutive years, down to 75% this year compared to 79% in 2016-17. Performance in eighth grade has fluctuated in the past five years, but fell this year to 76% of students passing the state test compared to 77% last year.

“We’ve been so focused on teaching to the test and getting them ready for the test that sometimes we forget what the bigger picture is, which is for them to love to read and want to read,” said Virginia Commonwealth University teaching and learning professor Valerie Robnolt.

***

Why scores are on the decline is the million-dollar question.

Virginia is implementing new learning standards for reading and writing. Schools receive less money — when adjusted for inflation — than they did before the Great Recession. The numbers of English-learning students in the state and those from low-income families have drastically increased in the past 10 years.

“These latest national assessment results make it clear that, given the significant changes that have occurred in our schools over the last decade, we must do more to support young learners who are struggling to attain grade-level proficiency in reading,” Lane said.

An Oct. 18 memo from Lane to school superintendents across the state urged them to put a renewed focus on literacy, specifically recommending more reading time for students.

“As the school year continues, school divisions are encouraged to provide students with daily opportunities to read,” Lane wrote. “While it is important to meet each child where he or she is instructionally, all students need opportunities to read grade-level text daily, including nonfiction and fiction pieces.”

He added that the Education Department will be looking at schools and districts that didn’t see drops in reading performance to potentially replicate what they are doing elsewhere.

As the number of students who need more resources goes up, studies and experts say education spending hasn’t kept pace.

State spending per student is down 8% compared with the 2008-09 school year, according to the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, a Richmond-based research organization. An average of $5,749 is spent on every student by the state, compared with $6,225 in the 2008-09 school year, after adjusting for inflation.

The Commonwealth Institute also found that there are 2,329 fewer support staff members — positions such as social workers, custodians and psychologists — in Virginia schools compared with 2008-09.

A proposal approved by the Virginia Board of Education in October calls for more support staff positions and more reading specialists to help schools with a low percentage of students passing the state’s third-grade reading test.

The latest NAEP scores highlight the need for more reading specialists, Robnolt said.

“We need to have the highest-qualified people providing the intervention in kindergarten and first grade,” she said. “We know a lot from research on what’s supposed to be happening. It’s just a matter of making sure teachers first know how to provide that instruction and giving them the support to teach it.”

The reading specialists proposal makes up $36.6 million of a funding package that calls for $950 million more for schools every year. While the state’s public education governing board has recommended that increase in education spending, it’s up to the General Assembly to fund it.

Gov. Ralph Northam’s office said it will consider the Board of Education’s changes, including the recommendation for more reading specialists, in its creation of the state budget.

“Reading is the foundation of all educational success, and it’s absolutely clear we must do more to support our students struggling to read,” Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said in a statement Wednesday.

Parker Slaybaugh, the spokesman for House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, said improving test scores “starts with paying teachers more and giving localities more flexibility.”

“We will raise teacher pay to the national average and protect lottery funding for schools, so each and every school system can meet their own unique challenges,” he said. “Top down, bureaucratic efforts with one-size-fits-all policies aren’t the answer.”

Despite a 5% raise for teachers last year, Virginia’s average teacher pay is about $8,000 below the national average.

Cox, a retired teacher, is running for re-election next week in a year in which every seat in the General Assembly is on the ballot.

The state budget is set to be unveiled next month in advance of the General Assembly session that starts in January.