For Reggie Williams, every day is training day in raising his 14-year-old son, Isaiah, to be the man he wants him to be. So they weren’t going to miss The Brotha-to-Brother Project Kids’ Summit, an event designed to help black youngsters grow and prosper.
“I’m raising him to have a polished self-image” modeled on hard work and integrity, Williams said. “To be part of the solution in this world, not part of the problem.”
Saturday at the Richmond Public Library downtown, presenters urged the youths to speak their mind, launch businesses, create jobs, and safeguard their mental health. They provided the youngsters with adult role models such as educator Ronald Johnson Sr., who dropped out of school and later rose from homelessness to earn a GED and, eventually, a doctorate.
“Any resources, any outlet that’s going to help me in raising my child, I’m all for it,” said Williams, a carpenter who lives in Chesterfield County.
Brotha-to-Brother was organized by Mike Jay, a Richmond-based comedian, who hopes to make the inaugural event a Black History Month staple.
Growing up in Petersburg, he said, “a lot of the kids thought our only way out, to be successful in this world, was dribbling a ball or rapping.”
“They don’t have to stay in that box,” Jay said in a nod toward the youngsters in the room. “They can be whatever they want to be.”
Jay said African American men need to take advantage of every opportunity, “because this world has a stigma against us and we need to change the narrative.”
He told the boys in the room that they are the future. “Y’all are the stars for us. So we need to get our stars on track. So next thing, we’ll have a next Kobe Bryant, we’ll have a next Barack Obama, we’ll have a next profound black leader among us. And we can say we met them right here, today.”
“Also, with this being the first day of Black History [Month], it’s very important to me that we get our black brothers together and learn how to communicate with each other, learn how to really get a sense of our mental health, to get through.”
Presenter Vohn Lewis, a teacher who last June gave his shoes to a student whose own had fallen apart before the graduation ceremony at George Mason Elementary School, drove home that point in speaking about Bryant’s death.
“It hurt me. But also too, it exposed me to the fact that as black men, as people period, we cannot be afraid to speak about things that hurt us,” he said. “We cannot be afraid to express ourselves. Because bottling things in always hurts.”
Rikye McKeever, a fourth-grader at Ginter Park Elementary, had no problem finding his voice in walking to the front of the room and reciting the Langston Hughes poem, “I, Too,” as his proud mother, Requel McKeever, recorded him on her phone.
“I brought my son because I’m a single mom myself, and he needs positive male role models,” said McKeever, a teacher at Linwood Holton Elementary. “I want him to know his person, his presence, can make a difference among his peers and adults.”
Toward the end of the event, Jay approached the seated boys and, one by one, asked them what they want to be when they grow up. The answers were timeless: football player, basketball player, policeman, artist, architect, doctor.
“So what do you need to do to be a doctor?” he asked the youth.
“Study and focus,” the boy replied.
“I like that answer,” Jay said.
“I didn’t get asked that when I was a kid,” Jay explained to the youths. “I felt like nobody really cared what my ultimate dream was. ... I don’t want y’all to have that feeling.”
“It’s important for us, as adults, whether we’re parents or not, as a community, to make sure we push y’all in the right direction, so y’all can be whatever y’all want to be.”
In the middle of Monday’s rally where more than 2,000 teachers called on state lawmakers to increase education funding, a different type of chant broke out.
“What do we want? Collective bargaining. When do we want it? Now,” educators from across the state screamed.
Teachers, firefighters, police and other public sector employees are barred from collective bargaining, in which an employer negotiates with a group of workers. Virginia is one of three states with such a ban.
Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, has sponsored House Bill 582, which would repeal the prohibition on collective bargaining by public employees, at a time when many educators say the state is neglecting the needs of schools.
Guzman said it’s important for employees to “have a seat at the table.”
“By allowing them to bargain collectively, they will fight for smaller classroom ratios and fight for more resources to make our schools better,” she said. “These teachers need to be included in these conversations so they can negotiate what is important to them to help do their job better.”
Guzman’s bill, which has 46 co-sponsors, would create the Public Employee Relations Board, a panel that would determine bargaining units. Those bargaining representatives would be required to meet with public employers “at reasonable times to negotiate in good faith with respect to wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment.”
“We won’t have good schools if teachers don’t have power,” said Emma Clark, a teacher in Chesterfield County.
The bill would allow public employees to collectively bargain with 30% of employees participating, something to which the Virginia Association of Counties has expressed opposition.
The proposal comes as Democrats, with newfound power in the legislature, are trying to enact measures advocates say are more worker-friendly, including a repeal to the state’s right-to-work law and raising the minimum wage.
Gov. Ralph Northam signaled late last year that he opposes repeal of the right-to-work law, which forbids compulsory union membership.
As for the collective bargaining measure, spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said: “The governor is focused on ensuring that all Virginians have access to a well-paid, sustainable job in a safe workplace. As always, he will carefully review all legislation that reaches his desk.”
Public school teacher pay in Virginia, calculated by both the National Education Association and Virginia’s governmental research branch, is below the national average. The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission said in a report released last month that the average teacher in Virginia made $51,994 in 2017-18 compared with the national average of $56,930.
Jim Livingston, the president of the Virginia Education Association, said the union supports Guzman’s bill.
GOP calls it ‘wild departure’
House Republicans aren’t sold on the idea.
“This is a wild departure from any mandate that Democrats think that they have been given,” said Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah. “This is an extreme public policy shift that would allow public employees to essentially hold the people of Virginia and their respective localities hostage.”
Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne said the state is still working to determine the cost of the proposed changes, including the creation of the labor board.
North Carolina and South Carolina are the two other states that do not give public sector employees the power to collectively bargain.
The House of Delegates could vote on Guzman’s bill as soon as Tuesday. The House Appropriations and the House Labor and Commerce committees have already backed it.
In the other chamber, Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, has proposed a similar measure, Senate Bill 1022. The Senate Commerce and Labor Committee has not yet taken up the bill.
School funding push
While the push for collective bargaining power plays out, educators are continuing their fight for more funding — and not ruling out a lawsuit to get there.
At issue are the Virginia Board of Education’s changes to the Standards of Quality, revisions made in November that say state schools need more reading specialists, smaller class sizes and an Equity Fund for schools serving a large number of students from low-income families, among other things.
Those changes cost roughly $600 million per year, while another change — the rollback of a state-imposed limit on school support positions — carries a price tag of about $406 million.
“We believe that once we prescribe, unless the legislature actually revises what we do, what we prescribe is it,” said Dan Gecker, the president of the Board of Education, in a recent interview. “We expect and hope the legislature will take them up — not as a recommendation, but as in fact prescribed SOQs.”
Article 8 of the Virginia Constitution says it’s the legislature’s job to fund what the board says is necessary. The Standards of Quality are subject to revision “only by the General Assembly,” according to the state constitution, which was rewritten in 1971.
A.E. Dick Howard, a University of Virginia professor who led that effort to rewrite the constitution, said in an interview that the legislature is “under a constitutional mandate to find sufficient funds.”
“It’s not an aspiration,” he said. “It’s a constitutional duty.”
Funding for the SOQ changes isn’t in the governor’s proposed two-year budget that is in the hands of the General Assembly. Northam’s budget includes $1.2 billion in new education spending — roughly $800 million of which is allocated for technical changes, while the rest would fund a 3% teacher raise and a record increase to a fund different from what the Board of Education prescribed that helps districts with high concentrations of low-income students.
The House and Senate money committees are expected to release their versions of the budget Feb. 16.
Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, and Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, are sponsoring bills that would fund the board’s new standards.
“The board has done its part and now, as stated in our constitution, it’s time for the General Assembly to do its part,” Aird said Monday.
Asked if a lawsuit is possible, McClellan responded: “We will consider all options available to us.”
Education funding lawsuits aren’t unusual.
An ongoing lawsuit in Pennsylvania asserts that the state’s current school funding system does not comply with the state constitution. Lawsuits have also been filed in New Mexico, Delaware and Kansas, among other states.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the most well-known school finance lawsuit — San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez (1973) — that Texas’ school financing system did not violate the U.S. Constitution. The suit claimed that the U.S. Constitution barred states from funding public schools differently in areas with high property values and areas with low property values.
In Virginia, a 2018 report from the National Center for Education Statistics found that the state is one of just six where low-poverty districts receive more per student ($13,199) than high-poverty districts ($12,182).
Livingston, the Virginia Education Association president, said the prospect of litigation is “certainly on the table” but it’s too early to say if that’s what will happen.
Amid the uncertainty, education advocates are calling on lawmakers to look at other revenue options to raise school spending. A proposal to create new top rates for tax filers making more than $500,000 and $1 million, for example, would generate between $255 million and $361 million per year for six years, according to the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, a Richmond-based research organization.
Teachers say an influx is needed.
“Our schools desperately need funds,” said Richmond teacher Keri Treadway. “We need a monsoon, not a drizzle.”
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Legislation to boost renewable energy production in the state and force electric utilities to wind down carbon emissions is working its way through the General Assembly, and precarious negotiations between environmental groups and the state’s utilities continued into the weekend.
The bill, introduced by Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, would set renewable energy production targets for electric utilities like Dominion Energy to meet, with a final target of 100% by 2050.
The bill also would make more room for solar energy projects not operated by the utilities, and call on the utilities to boost energy-efficiency programs to reduce the amount of electricity the state consumes.
McClellan said the bill is meant to address the threat of carbon emissions and climate change. She said the measure presents a framework to end the state’s reliance on fossil fuels “in a way that does not cause electric rates to go through the roof.”
“We’re trying to strike that balance,” she said in an interview, adding: “But I think there’s a societal cost of not doing this, if we continue to do nothing.”
The energy subcommittee of the Senate Commerce and Labor committee voted down McClellan’s bill on Thursday, because the bill lacked its final language. A coalition of environmental groups, monopoly utilities and business advocates hopes to hash out a deal by Sunday, before McClellan’s bill comes before the full Senate Commerce and Labor Committee on Monday. (In the Senate, unlike the House, subcommittees can make recommendations but cannot kill bills.)
Representatives of Dominion, the Virginia League of Conservation Voters and others said they were hopeful a deal would emerge. Among the key concerns is how quickly utilities should be asked to meet renewable energy and energy-efficiency targets, and how much to widen the door for the solar industry.
“We are working to find a consensus,” said Dominion Energy spokesman Jeremy Slayton.
“All stakeholders are still at the table,” said Michael Town, executive director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters. “Everyone is working in good faith to get to yes. That’s very encouraging, and the public and lawmakers should be encouraged by that dynamic, which is new.”
A group of large employers in the state, including IKEA, Nestlé and Kaiser Permanente, sent a letter to lawmakers late Friday urging them to support the key tenets of the bill.
“Creating a cleaner electricity grid in Virginia will help us meet our sustainability goals, while attracting new investment, encouraging innovation, and saving ratepayers money,” they wrote.
Environmental protection and climate change advocacy have become key bullets in Democrats’ agenda in Virginia and across the country, as activists warn of a “crisis” and denounce moves by the Trump administration to roll back Obama-era environmental protection rules.
Whether human-triggered climate change is happening is an issue that continues to divide the parties in Virginia. How to approach it legislatively may well divide Democrats, with some concerned about tying utilities to unachievable goals and seeing power bills skyrocket.
Some policies have consensus. Democrats have vowed to move ahead with the state’s first cap on carbon emissions — blocked by Republicans last year — which would limit emissions from power plants and some industrial facilities that burn fossil fuels.
Energy producers like Dominion Energy would be pushed into an emissions trading program with nine nearby states called the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI, where they could trade emission reductions for cashable credits, or pay to go above the emissions cap.
McClellan’s bill would codify some of the goals Gov. Ralph Northam laid out in an executive order last summer, which called for Virginia’s electric grid to be solely dependent on carbon-free energy sources by 2050.
The Northam administration, however, is yet to back the legislation and is not a part of the negotiations. A representative of the Northam administration told a subcommittee Thursday that the administration is “encouraged by the conversations among stakeholders.”
“We are reserving taking a position until after the bill is amended,” said Deputy Secretary of Commerce and Trade Angela Navarro.
The legislation has a House companion sponsored by Del. Rip Sullivan, D-Fairfax. Sullivan’s bill has not been heard by a House committee.
McClellan’s bill would take Northam’s executive order further by setting annual renewable energy production targets for the state’s utilities. As introduced, the bill would call for 14% of the total energy Dominion sells to come from renewable sources. That grows to 51% by 2033.
A key sticking point is how fast to call on Dominion to meet these targets, McClellan and others said.
“I think everyone is OK with 100% by 2050, but what’s the glide path to that?” McClellan said in an interview.
Slayton said 6% of the energy Dominion sold customers as of 2018 came from renewables. He said the figure reflects companywide sales, not just Virginia.
“That being said, we have accepted the governor’s challenge to have 30% of our generation come from renewables by 2030,” Slayton added.
Dominion declined to comment further for this story, but McClellan said she has heard concerns from Dominion that the utility won’t have enough time to deploy its projects on renewables to meet the early targets.
A massive offshore wind project Dominion is pitching to lawmakers and regulators is slated to start generating electricity in 2024, with completion in 2026.
Opening up the door to more distributed solar — generation by entities outside of Dominion — would help toward the state’s goal.
Dominion has long been wary of legislators lifting a state-imposed cap on how much of the total energy on its grid can come from such projects. Right now, that cap is at 1%.
When McClellan, Sullivan and Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, unveiled the legislation at a news conference in December, it had support from a broad coalition of more than two dozen groups. They called for raising the cap to 10% to send a strong signal to the solar industry that it should invest in the state. People familiar with the negotiations said that number could end up being lower.
McClellan said she hopes consensus will yield a bill that positions Virginia as a leader in renewable energy, and said broader support from the Senate may depend on consensus, given the bill’s fate in subcommittee.
She said the bill she originally filed would be “the boldest step Virginia has ever taken” on the issue. Short of that, she said, “I’ll ask myself, is where we have consensus better than the status quo?”
In front of members of a Senate subcommittee, she said that wherever a consensus could not be reached, she would have tough calls to make.
A spokesman for the Sierra Club, one of the parties negotiating the deal, said: “Our main priority is ensuring state leaders pass the kind of strong climate legislation voters demanded in November.”
“This session represents an opportunity for Democrats to prove they are worthy of the majority by making sure Dominion does not get to dictate the terms of climate action,” Tim Cywinski said.
Town, with the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, said he hoped a strong bill would emerge over the weekend but did not reject the possibility of coming back to the issue next year if consensus can’t be reached.
“Every year that we delay, the urgency to act is going to grow. We don’t have time to wait, so we want to reach an agreement,” he said. “If we don’t, the need for a stronger agreement next year will be greater.”
When Chesterfield County voters head to the polls this November, they’ll likely be asked to sign off on borrowing about $600 million for a slew of school and county projects. School officials say it’s not enough.
About two-thirds of the pot would support school system priorities such as five new schools, replacing five more and overhauling others; the rest would cover county needs like road projects and updating libraries, parks and fire stations, under preliminary talks among Chesterfield’s elected representatives.
“Four hundred million dollars is a lot of money, but it doesn’t take you very far down this list,” Deputy Superintendent Thomas Taylor said Friday of the system’s priorities at a joint schools and county meeting that set the table for this year’s budget talks.
The $600 million proposal — which has not been finalized — is about as high as Chesterfield could go under a policy aimed at maintaining the county’s current bond ratings, Jimmy Sanderson, senior vice president at Davenport & Co., a financial adviser, told county and school officials.
The plan comes weeks after Chesterfield’s schools superintendent unveiled a spending plan for the next fiscal year that includes teacher raises and was $100 million higher than this year’s, a move that stunned county officials.
School system employees identified two dozen long-term capital priorities Friday, beginning with major maintenance projects at existing schools. School officials also want to build a new high school, two middle schools and two new elementary schools.
The plan seeks to replace Falling Creek and Midlothian middle schools as well as A.M. Davis, Bensley and Grange Hall elementary schools. Further down the list are plans to refurbish nine more, including James River and Manchester high schools.
County officials have emphasized that Chesterfield has other infrastructure needs to meet, some of which took second billing in the last bond referendum in 2013. Voters at that time approved a bond package that covered about $402 million in school building projects and only $50 million for the county, which was used to replace Chesterfield’s emergency communications system.
Now, the county government is looking to the upcoming referendum to pay for such things as road projects, updated libraries, parks and fire stations.
The last schools project financed by the 2013 bond referendum, a new Reams Road Elementary, broke ground in October. That bond package paid for nine new school buildings and two school renovations.
Taylor said this bond package would go quickly; adding a new high school is estimated to cost about $100 million. He estimated a new middle school would cost $65 million and a new elementary school $32 million.
Debbie Bailey, chairwoman of the Chesterfield School Board, said Friday that she was happy the schools would have money to work with, but that they have tough choices ahead.
“We’re not asking for Cadillacs up there. There’s not a whole lot of frills,” said Bailey, referring to a school priorities list shown Friday. “We have 100-year-old buildings that need to be taken care of, but again we’ll work through the list and do the best we can.”
Schools Superintendent Merv Daugherty did not include a new capital improvement plan in the $777 million spending blueprint he unveiled in January for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
The superintendent said he was proposing a budget focused on tackling the school system’s true needs when he unveiled his proposal, which calls for teacher raises of between 3% and 13% based on experience, a pay hike for bus drivers and other added spending.
County officials rejected Daugherty’s contention that his spending plan is funding only needs rather than wants.
County Administrator Joe Casey said the day after the superintendent’s budget was released that he was not planning to propose raising the real estate tax rate of 95 cents per $100 of assessed value to cover budget increases.
Rising home assessments mean many Chesterfield residents — many of whom are on fixed incomes — already are paying more, Casey said, adding that nearly 70% of county households do not have school-age children.
One option for raising money: asking voters to approve a tax on meals. Richmond and Henrico County levy a meals tax, but Chesterfield voters shot down the measure as an option for footing the bill for the bond package they approved in 2013.
Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Leslie Haley said officials need to weigh residents’ reaction to other transportation and fuel taxes that might be enacted by the current General Assembly before deciding to pursue a meals tax.
“That’s going to weigh what our citizens’ tolerance is for looking at other burdens,” Haley said.