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New buses, bathrooms and teachers: Richmond Public Schools rezoning could have high price tag

Richmond Public Schools would need to spend at least $617,500 per merger to combine elementary school zones under draft plans that would pair some schools in an effort to boost diversity and academic performance.

The estimate — between $617,500 and $842,500 per school pairing — vastly exceeds earlier projections. The money would pay for new teachers, new buses and new bathrooms, among other things, according to figures Superintendent Jason Kamras unveiled Thursday.

“This is a rough initial estimate,” Kamras, a supporter of pairing, said during a rezoning meeting at John Marshall High School. “This is something the [School Board] is going to have to weigh: Are these costs worth the potential benefits?”

Of three remaining proposals for rezoning the school system for the academic year that begins next fall, only two include school pairings. Of those, one option calls for combining three schools.

A committee appointed by the School Board to steer the process is reviewing proposals crafted by the Ohio-based consultant Cropper GIS. The first plans were revealed three months ago, and the School Board is scheduled to vote on new school zones in December. The School Board has briefly discussed delaying the implementation of paired schools until at least the start of the 2021-22 school year.

The school system is trying to alleviate overcrowding in some schools, under-enrollment in others and a projected 6.6% increase in the number students, from about 24,400 now to nearly 26,000 in 2028-29. Some School Board members have said they hope to desegregate school zones that currently yield majority-black and majority-white schools.

Cost estimate

The estimated cost range for a school pairing, which combines schools to make one attendance zone and sends students to one school for some grades and the other school for later grades, stretches from $617,500 to $842,500, Kamras estimated Thursday.

The largest cost would be in academics, where the school system would hire an extra reading and math specialist at each “paired” school, along with a reading and math coach for each school. Those four positions carry an estimated price tag of $320,000 per year. There would also be an estimated $50,000 in professional development cost.

The school system projects it would cost at least $135,000 to $270,000 more to transport students per pairing, which includes money for new bus routes, a bus driver ($35,000) and $100,000 for every new bus. After-school activities transportation could add an additional $50,000 if all after-school activities are at one school.

Each school should have its own principal, Kamras said, and there would be community-building retreats ($2,500 per pairing) and events ($10,000 per pairing) to help with the change.

The administration also proposed adding five to seven bathrooms at a cost of $20,000 per bathroom.

Not factored into the estimates was $100,000 in project management and communications help the district said it would need to implement “any of the more aggressive rezoning options.”

The new appraisals far exceed the $50,000 the school system had estimated it would cost to implement new zones when it released potential costs for its five-year strategic plan, which rezoning is a part of.

“If anyone needed any further evidence to demonstrate just how off-track the rezoning deliberations have been, then they need not look any further than what amounts to hundreds of thousands of dollars for an unnecessary pairing proposal,” said Jonathan Young, who represents the 4th District on the School Board and is an opponent of school pairing.

The total cost of the strategic plan, which school leaders have trumpeted as a turnaround plan for a school system where less than half of schools meet the state’s full accreditation standards, is estimated at $150 million. The second year of the plan — the current academic year — was fully funded by the City Council, but future funding for the plan is unclear.

Thursday’s meeting was the first hosted by the school division since new zone options were released Sept. 26. They’ve since been revised.

Elementary Option I

In this plan, Bellevue Elementary School is “repurposed.”

Previous plans call for the school’s closure, but this would either close the school or potentially turn it into a specialty school, as some East End members of the rezoning committee have endorsed. George Mason Elementary School would take all of the current Bellevue zone in this plan, helping fill the new George Mason that’s set to open next fall.

This option leaves Mary Munford Elementary School untouched, something many parents at the city’s whitest and most affluent school have asked for. Parents made that request again at a meeting Wednesday at the school organized by 1st District School Board member Liz Doerr, calling the idea of combining school zones “disruptive.”

Other parents, including Kim Gomez, a member of the rezoning committee, advocated for pairing Munford with a majority-black school. “We have to have skin in the game and have our kids in schools together,” she said.

Elementary Option II

This plan leaves Bellevue unaffected, instead filling George Mason by taking some of Whitcomb Court from Fairfield Court Elementary School.

It also includes the three-way pairing in the North Side of the city. Under that plan, Barack Obama and Ginter Park elementary schools would have students for kindergarten through second grade before they go to Linwood Holton for third through fifth grades.

In this option, schools in the west side of the city are grouped together.

John B. Cary Elementary, Fox Elementary and Binford Middle School would create a school “cluster.” Students would go to Fox for kindergarten through third grade, Cary for fourth and fifth grades and Binford for sixth through eighth grades.

Munford would be grouped with Carver Elementary — combining the highest-achieving elementary school in the city and the second-lowest — and Albert Hill Middle School. Students would go to Carver for kindergarten through second grade, Munford for third through fourth grades and Hill for fifth through eighth grades.

Elementary Option B1

In this plan, which covers the West End, Cropper suggests combining the school zones for Cary and Mary Munford. Munford would become a K-2 school with students transitioning to Cary — about 2 miles away — for third through fifth grades.

Middle and high schools

The current Elkhardt-Thompson Middle School building would be “repurposed” under both middle school options. A new middle school is being built on Hull Street Road to replace the school, which officials have said they’d like to demolish and potentially rebuild. The cost for demolishing the school is estimated at $750,000 to $1.5 million.

High schools remain the least affected by the proposals, with 264 students potentially changing schools in both plans.


JAMES H. WALLACE/TIMES-DISPATCH  

Meredith Houston reads to her fourth-grade class at Westover Hills Elementary in Richmond. The Virginia Department of Education changed its rating system last year to take more than test scores into consideration.


Plus
Test scores are down. The number of schools accredited is up. How can that be?

More Virginia students are failing state tests, but more schools are passing the state’s new system for evaluating schools.

How can that be?

The Virginia Department of Education changed rules for rating schools last year to take more than test scores into account when assigning labels often used to publicly judge a school.

Now, things like student attendance and performance growth over time factor into ratings. So although the percentage of students passing annual accountability tests is at its lowest point in five years, nearly 300 more schools received the state’s highest rating in data released this week.

The paradox draws into question the precision of the state’s revamped accountability system, something it needs to have under a new federal law that gave back more control of education to state and local governments. Virginia, like other states, is moving beyond test scores, though, to evaluate a school’s quality for ratings that communities frequently use to label a school as “good” or “bad.”

“We see a diminished rigor,” said Thomas Toch, the founding director of FutureEd, a think tank inside Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. “What you’re seeing in Virginia is scores going down but schools still being approved [under the new law], which should be concerning.”

During the 2014-15 school year, the average pass rate on state tests in reading, writing, history, math and science was 81%. A little more than 1,400 of Virginia’s public schools met the state’s full accreditation standards that year.

Three years later, after the revamp, that number had climbed to 1,683 schools despite the fact that scores in 2017-2018 dipped year-over-year in all five testing areas.

This year, pass rates fell in three of the five testing areas and remained flat in a fourth. The number of schools accredited was stagnant, dropping by just one school to 1,682.

State officials say the comprehensive approach is working.

“The system is doing what it’s intended [to do],” said Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane, the highest-ranking K-12 schools official in the state. “We wanted to have a broader picture of school quality.”

Virginia isn’t alone in debating the value of test scores. A law that Congress passed in December 2015 to replace the President George W. Bush-era No Child Left Behind legislation encourages it.

No Child Left Behind put intense focus on test scores, which became the primary driver for evaluating schools. The law became vastly unpopular. By the time lawmakers were debating its future, most states were receiving waivers allowing them to miss key elements of the law without punishment.

The replacement law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, limits the federal Education Department’s power in elementary and secondary education, and places it in the hands of state and local governments. Each state had to create its own education plan for the federal government to review. Virginia’s was approved in May 2018.

“ESSA was intended to give states a little more latitude to broaden what goes into rating a school,” said Deven Carlson, a University of Oklahoma professor who studies state accountability systems

The new systems, including Virginia’s, took effect last fall.

“The goal of [ESSA] was to move beyond a narrow definition of what school success is and to include some other measures that we care about, like how often students come to school,” said Laura Desimone, a professor in the University of Delaware’s College of Education and Human Development. “The idea that you could have a slight downturn in test scores and still meet the standard makes sense because you expanded the criteria for how we think about school improvement.”

Other states use numerical or letter grades to rate schools. Most states are using a summative rating system, like North Carolina’s A-F scale.

Virginia is one of six states to use what’s called a tier-of-support system, which details how much support is needed to address students’ academic achievement, according to Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based nonprofit that provides state-by-state research for policymakers.

Virginia’s new system doesn’t just look at how many students pass a test.

The new standards don’t include pass rates for English and math, but rather a combined rate, which shows the percentage of students who are meeting state expectations or making significant progress. The combined rate for English includes students learning English as a second language who show progress toward fluency on a specific ESL assessment.

In calculating growth, the state is taking student test results and comparing them with previous performance. More than 4 in 5 states are using growth in addition to the standard academic proficiency or test scores in their ESSA accountability systems, according to Education Week.

Take Westover Hills Elementary School in Richmond, for example. The school went from accredited with conditions last year to accredited this year, even though students didn’t meet state benchmarks in any testing area.

In 2018-19, 56% of students at Westover Hills passed the reading tests. That is still below the 75% threshold the state has, but was a 15 percentage point increase over the previous year, when 41% of students passed the tests. The school went from having a “Level Three” distinction in reading last year to “Level One” this year.

“Level Three” is one of three possible levels for accreditation factors. (Level One is the best; Level Two means there’s room for improvement; Level Three means the school is behind or hasn’t made progress for more than four straight years.)

A single “Level Three” makes a school go from accredited to accredited with conditions (once known as partially accredited).

Scores at the school also improved year-over-year in math and science, helping the school go from accredited with conditions to fully accredited.

Lane said improvement on state math tests is also to credit for the number of accredited schools increasing.

Math was the lone subject this year to see an improved pass rate on the state Standards of Learning tests, climbing from 77% last year to 82% this year.

The number of schools scoring in the top tier in math academic achievement increased from 1,726 in last year’s ratings to 1,769 this year.

Virginia also uses a three-year average when looking at a school’s test results. If a school doesn’t meet the benchmark one year, but does using the school’s three-year average in that subject, the average is used. That has been a part of the state’s accreditation system since the late 1990s, Education Department spokesman Charles Pyle said.

“The intent there is to provide some mitigation for year-to-year fluctuations that may or may not reflect some change in the instructional program,” Pyle said.

Schools are also being judged on how they reduce chronic absenteeism, which affects 1 in 10 students across the state, according to the Education Department. A student is chronically absent if they miss 10% or more of the school year.

The number of schools in the top tier for reducing chronic absenteeism increased 4% from 1,600 to 1,663 this year.

Thirty-five states, plus Washington, D.C., are using chronic absenteeism in their revamped accountability systems, according to Education Commission of the States.


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Restaurant-news
Food hall opening in Scott's Addition with 18 vendors, two bars, a rooftop bar - and The Veil Brewing Co. taproom

A new food hall — the first in Richmond — is opening in Scott’s Addition sometime next year and The Veil Brewing Co. will move its Scott’s Addition taproom into that space when it opens.

Neighborhood Restaurant Group, an Alexandria-based restaurant group, this week announced The Belleville, a 25,000-square-foot space in the works at 1509 Belleville St. that will feature roughly 18 food vendors, The Veil’s taproom and three bars — one of which will sit on the building’s rooftop.

Neighborhood Restaurant Group owns and operates 18 restaurants throughout Washington, Maryland and Northern Virginia — including Birch & Barley, Red Apron, Iron Gate and a soon-to-open food hall, The Roost, on Capitol Hill.

“Having spent a great deal of time in Richmond, I’ve long been drawn to the energy and excitement happening in Scott’s Addition,” Michael Babin, founder and principal of Neighborhood Restaurant Group, wrote in a statement. “Opportunities to plant the first food hall in a major city like this don’t come along every day — that, coupled with the opportunity to work with The Veil, makes this project too good to be true.”

The Veil Brewing Co. will move its Scott’s Addition taproom from 1301 Roseneath Road to The Belleville when it opens in 2020.

Co-owners Dustin Durrance, Dave Michelow and Matt Tarpey in April 2016 opened The Veil Brewing Co. at it current location in an 11,000-square-foot building that previously housed a church.

The Veil quickly became a brewery that attracted beer enthusiasts along the East Coast, with locals and visitors coming for its “hop-forward” brews and can releases on Tuesdays. The Veil has won a variety of accolades from industry publications and insiders, including being called one of the best new breweries in the world and one of the best in America.

“This has been under wraps for a while,” Michelow said of the move to a new space. “The genesis is that we needed more room in production. We all stay in one office with 12 to 14 full-time people working in one space. It gets cramped.”

Michelow said they’ve been searching for the right space for expansion for two years and were thrilled to be able to partner with Neighborhood Restaurant Group on the project. The restaurant group specializes in beer-focused restaurants, and its restaurants were the first and thus far only ones in the Washington area that serve The Veil’s beers on tap.

“The Veil and NRG have had a mutual admiration for each other, bonding over a broader approach to beverage, food and hospitality,” wrote Greg Engert, Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s partner-beer director. “We’ve been plotting ways to work together for some time, outside of proudly pouring The Veil at many of our restaurants.”

Once The Veil transitions its taproom to The Belleville food hall, it will begin production expansion in the Roseneath space, in part to help ramp up production for the two other breweries it has in the works.

The Veil announced last year that it was bringing a small-batch brewery and tasting room to 4910-4930 Forest Hill Ave., which is expected to open next year, and a brewpub in Norfolk, which is expected to open the second weekend in November.

Both will have on-site food options, a rarity for breweries, which usually rely on food trucks to provide food options for visitors. In Norfolk, The Veil is working with Codex, chef Ian Hock’s acclaimed 2-year-old Norfolk restaurant, to create a “kind of slimmed-down restaurant menu,” Michelow said.

The Veil’s Norfolk spot will be “kind of a modern brewpub,” Michelow said, similar to what’s in the works in The Hill Standard development on Forest Hill Avenue, where The Veil is partnering with Richmond’s Pepe’s Mexican restaurant to create a menu exclusive to that location.

Having on-site restaurants at all of its breweries, as will be the case in 2020, wasn’t intentional, Michelow said. “It turned out that way,” he said, but they knew going into the Forest Hill and Norfolk projects that they wanted to be very specific with the food concepts to complement the beer selection.

The food vendors haven’t been announced for The Belleville food hall project.

Neighborhood Restaurant Group will lead the curation of those vendors “largely selected from the dynamic Richmond dining scene, with a few outlets highlighting some of the best and most innovative chefs in the country,” according to a news release. It also will manage the events and operations of the space as well as two cocktail and wine-focused bars, plus the rooftop bar.

The Belleville space is at the corner of Belleville and West Moore streets, a block west of The Dairy Bar and almost across the street from Tang & Biscuit Shuffleboard Social Club.

“It’s the westernmost street or boundary in Scott’s Addition,” Michelow said.

Neighborhood Restaurant Group and The Veil are working with the Richmond architecture firm Fultz & Singh and Richmond-based developers Birck Turnbull and Charles Bice, the duo behind High Summit Partners, to renovate the space for The Belleville into the food hall.

High Summit Partners also worked on The Veil’s original Roseneath Road location and are the developers on the Forest Hill Avenue project.

According to property records, High Summit Partners closed on the Belleville Street building in February.

There isn’t an opening date yet for The Belleville, though Michelow said summer 2020 would be ideal.


Crime
breaking
Pakistani man wanted in 2015 murder-for-hire killing in Chesterfield arrested at Dulles airport

Elmadany

Mendoza

Vasquez

A 60-year-old Pakistani national who had been a fugitive since 2015 in the murder-for-hire plot of a Chesterfield County businessman and well-known member of Richmond’s Muslim community has been arrested at Washington Dulles International Airport after arriving in the U.S. from outside the country.

On Monday, the FBI took into custody Chaudhary “The Don” Arshad Mahmood in connection with the Jan. 24, 2015, slaying of Adel M. Elmadany, 60, who was found strangled and suffocated inside his business, 3 Amigos Auto Sales at 108 Turner Road.

The FBI was working with Chesterfield police and had assistance from U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Federal Air Marshal Service.

“We received information that he was flying into the United States, and we coordinated with the FBI,” said Chesterfield police Sgt. Kevin Helton, who declined to say from which country Mahmood’s flight originated or where authorities believe he has been living since the killing. “We continuously pursue fugitives and luckily this worked out.”

In 2015, police said they believed Mahmood may have fled to his native Pakistan.

Authorities previously alleged that Mahmood paid two Guatemalan nationals about $3,000 each to kill Elmadany. The two co-defendants, Melvin Leonel Sandoval Vasquez, 25, of Washington, and Narcisco DeJesus Lemus Mendoza, 27, of Manassas, pleaded guilty in September 2016 to first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit capital murder. Both were sentenced to 70 years in prison with 32 suspended, giving each 38 years to serve.

At the time of their trial, it was disclosed that both men were immigrants living in the U.S. illegally.

Their September 2015 plea agreements require them to testify against Mahmood, whom authorities said planned the murder and was living in Northern Virginia at the time.

After their arrests, Vasquez and Mendoza admitted to police that they posed as customers at Elmadany’s car business and knocked him to the ground, putting a plastic grocery bag over his head and then strangling him with his own shoelace, according to a summary of evidence at their trials. Investigators recovered surveillance video from nearby businesses that showed the defendants in and around Elmadany’s used-car lot on the day of the killings.

Elmadany, who lived in the 7500 block of Ander Court, was found dead by his wife the next day.

Mahmood apparently wanted Elmadany killed because prosecutors said the victim had been asked to intercede in the financial affairs of Mahmood and his wife, Ebtesam, whom Mahmood married in 2014, according to the summary of evidence.

“Ebtesam told police that Mahmood used their marital status to file false tax returns and engage in other illegal financial activities,” Chesterfield prosecutor Barbara Cooke told a judge at the co-defendants’ trial in 2016. “Adel learned of this and allowed Ebtesam, who was only with Mahmood for a couple of months, to move into the 3 Amigos building. Ebtesam told police that Mahmood was capable of hiring someone to kill Adel.”

Early in the case, police said they believed Mahmood was armed and dangerous and that he may have fled to Pakistan.

Vasquez and Mendoza told police that after killing Elmadany, they drove back to Manassas, where they got rid of their clothes and met Mahmood, who paid them $6,000, which they split. In a later interview, Vasquez told investigators that they had received a portion of the “hit” money before the killing, and the balance afterward.

After Mendoza was arrested, he claimed that Mahmood — whom he called “El Señor” — had hired him as a mechanic and had threatened him with a gun and forced him to travel to Richmond to kill Elmadany. He eventually admitted to putting the bag over Elmadany’s head and tying the shoelace around his neck.

Mahmood, who is charged with first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit capital murder for hire, is being held without bond in the Chesterfield Jail.