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'Bad to worse' - legislators dismayed by report on VITA transition

A state agricultural field office lost telephone service for 27 days in the spring because of a technology problem that was supposed to be solved in four hours.

A transportation district office employing 800 people has experienced 14 outages in its information technology network in the past year, disrupting email, invoicing and other services for as long as 12 hours at a time.

Meanwhile, the state’s IT office has left millions of dollars of potential civil penalties uncollected from suppliers for not meeting the terms of their contracts to provide services to 65 executive branch agencies that employ 55,000 people.

More than a year after a messy divorce from Northrop Grumman, a new legislative study shows Virginia struggling through some rough patches in its relationship with eight vendors under a new IT operating system that ultimately is supposed to reap big annual savings and better services for state agencies.

“It doesn’t seem like we’re going in a good direction,” said Del. Steve Landes, R-Augusta, vice chairman of the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, which received the withering 49-page report from its staff on Monday about the Virginia Information Technologies Agency and its transition to the new IT operating model.

“I’m basically flabbergasted,” Landes said. “I thought this was supposed to help us solve some of these problems, but it seems to be going from bad to worse.”

VITA officials and JLARC staff members cautioned that the study — covering December through August — represents a snapshot of the agency at a particularly difficult time as it moved from an unhappy relationship with Northrop Grumman to multiple contracts for different services to executive branch agencies.

“VITA is confident that, if JLARC returns to assess the new model a year from now, early issues will have been addressed, and the benefits from the new model will continue to accrue,” Chief Information Officer Nelson Moe said in the agency’s formal written response to the report’s findings and recommendations.

“VITA always cautioned that this initiative would be a long-term improvement,” Moe said. “Satisfying the commonwealth’s extensive technology debt was never going to be a simple flick of the switch.”

The agency is likely to get its wish, as Sen. Tommy Norment, R-James City, the JLARC chairman, suggested that the legislative watchdog agency return in six months to a year for a fresh look at the transition to the new IT network.

Norment also asked whether the staff had analyzed what it would cost “to unwind VITA” and return to managing IT services within state agencies, as Virginia did before the General Assembly and then-Gov. Mark Warner adopted legislation in 2003 to create the central IT oversight agency.

One of the 12 recommendations in the JLARC report would require VITA to conduct “a comprehensive assessment” by July 1 of whether the agency is “structured and staffed effectively” to manage the new system.

The new study found that VITA generally did a good job of writing the contracts to procure IT services, but the staff found significant shortcomings in how the agency managed and enforced those contracts.

“VITA’s leadership is ultimately responsible for determining how VITA implements its multi-supplier model,” the staff states in the report summary. “To date, VITA’s leadership has not required agency staff to hold IT infrastructure suppliers accountable for meeting their contractual requirements.”

For example, the report finds:

  • New IT suppliers were more than six months behind in delivering on their contractual commitments for deliverable service, with 43% still incomplete in late July.
  • Suppliers had not reported data on more than half of their performance requirements by July, while 40% of those that did report had not met the requirements. “Underperformance was relatively widespread across VITA’s suppliers,” the report said.
  • Science Applications International Corp. — a Reston-based company that coordinates the new service model and oversaw the transition after VITA abruptly ended its relationship with Northrop Grumman 14 months ago — had not met a third deadline in August to provide all services under its contract.

However, SAIC also filed a claim for $3.7 million for additional services outside of the contract, and Perspecta, which provides mainframe computer services, asked for an additional $3.4 million for unforeseen costs, the report said. Two others have filed claims for almost $2.5 million that have not become formal disputes.

The report also found that VITA has collected on $1.7 million of the $6.7 million for contracted services that were “significantly overdue” from six suppliers, while also not penalizing one company $2 million for “unmet and unreported performance requirements” over a six-month period.

JLARC analyst Lauren Axselle estimated that the agency could have assessed similar penalties against five other companies, prompting Norment to peg the potential cumulative loss at $10 million.

However, the report also found that the new system could save VITA and its customers $220 million in IT costs over the next five years. The state wouldn’t see those savings begin until 2021, after paying off $219 million in debt from litigation and other costs from disentangling from the contract with Northrop Grumman.

The biggest concern JLARC staff expressed was dissatisfaction among state agencies about the reliability and quality of IT services they receive through VITA. Since the beginning of the year, 68% of high-priority incidents were resolved within four hours and 22% of critical priority incidents were fixed within two hours.

“We’ve really got to deal with these major service issues going forward,” JLARC Director Hal Greer told the commission.

VITA officials say their performance has improved greatly since JLARC surveyed state agencies in the spring. Jon Ozovek, hired in August as chief operating officer under a reorganization that was made public in the spring, cited “very encouraging signs” that showed the average time to resolve incidents had fallen from 17 days to two days, while satisfaction with the system service desk tops now 90%.

Ozovek said the agency also is replacing 1,000 personal computers a month, while rolling out new services after July 1.

The most glaring failure cited by JLARC staff members was the loss of telephone service at a rural field office for the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which said the 27-day outage affected its ability to schedule inspections and tests, including checking livestock for disease.

“It’s an example of the process not working,” acknowledged Dan Wolf, a former VITA legislative director who was hired as new chief administrative officer in August.

But Wolf said after the meeting, “We’re committed to getting better.”


DANIEL SANGJIB MIN/times-dispatch  

Sienna Nottingham, 6, visited the children’s section of the new Fairfield Area Library on Monday with her grandmother, Celestine Doctor-Smith. The two-story library at the southeast corner of Laburnum Avenue and Watts Lane in the eastern part of Henrico County features an open lobby, meeting space, a teen area, a digital media lab and a drive-up window.


Plus
Fewer than 1 in 4 students at a Richmond school passed reading tests. The school is still accredited. Here's how.

At Fairfield Court Elementary School in Richmond, fewer than 1 in 5 students passed the state’s science test last year. Fewer than 1 in 4 passed reading tests, and 28% passed math.

Yet when parents and other community members went to look up the school’s annual accreditation rating — released by the Virginia Department of Education last week — Fairfield Court received the top distinction under Virginia’s school accountability system.

Across Virginia, 61 schools that didn’t meet the state’s full standards are still accredited this year because of a state law that awards the status based on past performance. Nine of those schools, including J.R. Tucker High School in Henrico County, are in the Richmond region.

The carve-out was designed to streamline bureaucracy and incentivize academic performance, but the results can be confusing. A rating of accredited gives the impression that test scores and school culture are healthy, but Fairfield Court was the lowest-performing elementary school in the city last year.

“I don’t know that they shouldn’t be accredited,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane. The exceptions, he said, “give schools an opportunity to either show direct improvement in the school or create plans to mitigate some of those issues over time.”

The waivers are part of state law, which says the Virginia Board of Education must review a school’s accreditation status once every three years if a school had been fully accredited for three straight years. Fairfield Court Elementary, for example, had been accredited each of the past five years.

If the school meets the full standards, it remains accredited for the following three years regardless of its scores, state law says. The flexibility was added to state law in 2015 in an effort by Republicans to reduce bureaucracy, the news outlet Fauquier Now reported at the time. The schools still must develop a state-monitored improvement plan.

Last year, there were 116 schools accredited only because of previous performance, and nine of those were in the Richmond region. Some schools, such as Linwood Holton Elementary in Richmond, didn’t need the waiver this year as they scored high in every accreditation standard.

Tag Greason, a Republican from Loudoun County who introduced the bill in 2015, did not return a message left at his Northern Virginia business office Monday. Greason was voted out of office in 2017.

Waivers are also awarded through the Exemplar School Recognition Program, which was known as the Virginia Index of Performance program before this year. If a school has a pass rate on state tests of 95% or higher for two straight years, it can apply to the state Education Department for a waiver from accreditation. If it receives the waiver, the school is fully accredited for three years.

The program was created in 2007 under No Child Left Behind, the precursor to the current federal education law, to more formally recognize schools that exceed minimum state and federal accountability standards. The accreditation waiver is one of the incentives schools can receive.

In 2015, the state expanded the waivers to more than just the top-performing schools. Now, they can also go to schools like Fairfield Court, which had seen consistently high test scores but didn’t reach the 95% or higher threshold.

Fairfield Court and its past performance is the most extreme example in the state.

Three school years ago, 91% of students were passing state history tests, and more than 3 in 4 were reading at grade level. In the four testing areas at Fairfield Court, the East End school had an 81% pass rate.

In 2017-18, it dropped to 47%. Last school year, it went down to 21%, making it the lowest-achieving elementary school in the city.

The woeful student achievement led to 11 “Level Three” indicators in the state Education Department’s new accreditation system — the worst of three buckets in which performance can be put.

A school is considered accredited if every indicator is at either “Level One” or “Level Two.” Those indicators depend on more than just test pass rates, now including student academic growth, absenteeism rates and achievement gaps, among other things. Schools with one or more “Level Three” performances are accredited with conditions.

“If there’s an indicator that’s at Level Three that needs to be addressed, it’s still going to be addressed,” said state Education Department spokesman Charles Pyle.

The underlying data of the performance of the 61 schools accredited this year because of their past performance, though, show at least one factor is below the state standard, which would normally mean a score of Level Three. A single Level Three is enough to move a school from accredited to accredited with conditions under the new system. But that’s not always the case because of state law.

The recognition program, embedded within state code, lets schools get the waivers if they meet certain benchmarks. The three-year review rewards schools for consistently good scores.

Henrico’s Tucker High School received a Level Three for its dropout rate. So did L.C. Bird and Matoaca high schools in Chesterfield County and Highland Springs High School in Henrico.

Chesterfield schools spokesman Shawn Smith said the school system “is working on a complete audit of every dropout in our schools.”

“This involves making personal contacts with each family with a goal of having the student re-enroll,” Smith said. “Additional student support services are also being incorporated to work with students who may be vulnerable to dropping out.”

Andy Jenks, the spokesman for Henrico schools, said the district is “always concerned when a student is labeled as a dropout, no matter what school it may be.”

Jenks said Tucker has created a task force of school and central office staff members to monitor students who “are in danger of not graduating from high school in four years.” The group meets biweekly, he said.

The state is scheduled to release data on graduation and dropout rates for the Class of 2019 on Tuesday.

For Fairfield Court, the school got a new principal, Demetri Sermons, this year.

Tracy Epp, the chief academic officer for Richmond Public Schools, hopes the combination of new leadership and the school system’s academic strategy will improve the school. That strategy includes an overhaul of the district’s math and reading curriculum, which is part of a five-year turnaround plan.

“It’s going to be a climb for Fairfield,” she said. “We see this as a multiyear climb to make sure that any gains we do make are solid and are not based on strategies that can artificially bump up scores like heavy test prep.”

Epp added: “There’s sometimes this belief that throwing more onto something makes it better when, in reality, we want anything we do to be targeted and based in research of what we know works.”

The same strategy is being used at George W. Carver Elementary School, which is still dealing with the fallout from a cheating scandal uncovered by the state last year. Test scores at Carver were the second-lowest in the city among elementary schools this year — ahead of only Fairfield Court.

The school was rated as accredited with conditions this year after having its accreditation withheld last year because of the scandal, which led to fewer than 150 valid tests being taken last spring.

Like Fairfield, Carver has a new principal, Tiawana Giles, who served in an interim capacity last year and was asked to stay on for good this school year.

“We cannot build a system on hero principals, but principals really matter,” said Epp, touting Carver’s school culture improvement under Giles, specifically her engagement with the Carver community.

Chesterfield’s Carver College and Career Academy and Matoaca Middle School also had waivers for accreditation this year, as did Moody Middle School in Henrico and the Richmond Career Education and Employment Academy.


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Crime
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Henrico man charged with murder and rape of VCU administrator killed in Stratford Hills home

A Henrico County man is facing charges of murder, rape and abduction with intent to defile in the death of a Virginia Commonwealth University administrator.

Suzanne A. Fairman died May 9 by asphyxia, according to the state medical examiner’s office. She was found in a tub of the main bathroom of her home in the 7400 block of Tanglewood Road in the Stratford Hills neighborhood in South Richmond, a search warrant said.

Her son, Scott Fairman, spent Monday — his first birthday without his mother — like he has most days since her death: overwhelmed.

“I’ve had better birthdays,” he said in a phone call Monday evening. “It’s hard to put into words — I don’t know the words.”

Bittersweet was one word he said over and over.

The suspect, Thomas E. Clark, 59, of the 7100 block of Horsepen Road, was arrested in May, a week after Fairman’s death. Since then, he has been held in the Henrico County Jail on unrelated charges. Online records show Clark is being held for failing to register as a violent sex offender.

“Knowing Clark was taken into custody so quickly was a relief for everyone involved in the investigation,” said Major Crimes Capt. James Laino in a statement from the police department announcing Clark’s indictment Monday. “I wish we could have shared that information sooner with the community, but we didn’t want to release his name until we had all the evidence collected to present to the grand jury.”

Clark pleaded guilty to attempted robbery in Richmond in 2005. His victim, a woman, was photographed in the court file with a blackened right eye. The plea deal came with a 10-year sentence, and prosecutors dropped two other charges.

On Monday, a detective called Scott Fairman, who lives in Raleigh, N.C., with his two sons, to let him know Clark had been indicted. That was the first time he had heard the name of the man police believe killed his mother.

Scott Fairman said police told him that Clark had been on a crew that had been working on his mother’s home. He said the company had worked on the home in the past, but he didn’t know if Clark had been there before.

“People gravitated toward her,” he said. “And she really loved people.”

Scott Fairman said that years ago, his mother came across an article on the power of positive thinking. “She really took that to heart,” he said.

She worked out, joined a running group and ran a marathon in Richmond last year.

“It’s still weird to talk about it,” he said.

Officers responded to Fairman’s home at 11:07 p.m. on May 9 for a welfare check. Suzanne Fairman was supposed to travel to Florida but never arrived, a search warrant said.

“The water was running and a knife with blood on it was visible on the counter in the same bathroom,” the warrant said.

Fairman was pronounced dead at the scene.

She was the operational administrator for VCU’s academic learning transformation lab and graduated from the VCU School of Business, according to a university website.

Anyone with information about this homicide is asked to call Major Crimes Detective J. Baynes at (804) 646-3617 or contact Crime Stoppers at (804) 780-1000 or at www.7801000.com. The P3 Tips Crime Stoppers app for smartphones may also be used. All Crime Stoppers methods are anonymous.


Richmond Police Department  

Fairman


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Richmond man, 25, charged with sexually assaulting, killing 17-month-old child in May

A 25-year-old Richmond man has been charged with sexually assaulting and killing a 17-month-old girl who died two days after she was assaulted May 8 at a South Richmond motel.

Barron T. Spurlock, who lives in the 3100 block of Baronet Drive, was charged with murder and two counts of object sexual penetration in the death and sexual assault of Nariah Ivy Brown, Richmond police said Monday.

Spurlock already was in custody on unrelated charges when police served him with the new warrants.

The toddler died May 10 of complications of blunt-force trauma to her torso, according to the state medical examiner’s office. The girl was sexually assaulted in the motel, according to three law enforcement sources with knowledge of the case.

Nariah’s mother, Aija Brown, has previously said she left her child with a man whom she’d known for years and believed to be a friend.

At a vigil held for Nariah several days after she died, Brown said the cheerful, loving child had a lot of nicknames, but the most commonly used one was “Butter Bean.”

“Because she was short and stout,” Brown explained at the time.

Brown had given birth to the child early and spent months by her side at the hospital as she grew stronger. Brown returned to the hospital with Nariah in her arms after the assault.

“When I held my daughter in my arms for the last time, I said, ‘Baby, I love you. And I’m going to let you go with Him,’” Brown added. “I’ll be right behind you. I’ll be up there, and I’m going to hold you again.”

Police received a call about 7:40 p.m. on May 8 for a report of a child who had been assaulted at a motel in the 6400 block of Midlothian Turnpike. Officers responded to a hospital where the toddler was being treated for life-threatening injuries. She died two days later.

“This was one of the more emotionally trying investigations for our detectives because of the age of the victim,” said Richmond police Major Crimes Lt. Erlan Marshall in a statement. “We hope this arrest provides some measure of closure for the family and the community.”

Anyone with information about the child’s death can call Detective D. Longoria at (804) 646-6759. Those who would like to remain anonymous should contact Crime Stoppers at (804) 780-1000, www.7801000.com or through the P3 Tips app for smartphones.