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U.S.’ Syria withdrawal accelerates, amid accusations of betrayal

In Nation & World | U.S.’ Syria withdrawal accelerates, amid accusations of betrayal | Page A8

NH District Corp.  

An artist’s rendering shows plans for the downtown Richmond redevelopment project.

Chesterfield, Henrico among local court systems with most clerk staff vacancies

Chesterfield and Henrico counties are among the state’s five localities with the largest number of vacancies in their general district court clerk’s offices. Virginia judicial officials are seeking $11.2 million in the next state budget to fill less than half of the 276 open deputy clerk positions statewide.

Karl Hade, executive secretary of the Virginia judicial system, told legislators on Monday that help is needed to boost general district and juvenile and domestic relations courts, with 131 out of 192 court clerk’s offices operating without enough staff to handle court cases that are increasing in volume and complexity.

“This staffing shortage ... is making it increasingly difficult for the judiciary to provide its core government services to the citizens of the commonwealth,” Hade told the House Appropriations Committee.

Chesterfield General District Court has the fourth-greatest need at 11.8 full-time equivalent positions, trailing only Fairfax County, Prince William County, and Chesapeake. Henrico General District Court is fifth at 11 positions.

The problem is apparent to Appropriations Chairman Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, who said he hears complaints from constituents about the length of time for cases to come before local courts.

“We need to do something now because it’s getting to the point where justice is being delayed,” Jones told Hade.

The staffing needs are greatest for general district court clerks, with 63 of 77 courts understaffed. The state faces clerk staffing shortages in 46 of its 72 juvenile and domestic relations courts and 22 of its 43 combined courts.

Hade’s office is asking for money to fill 60 positions in each year of the two-year budget span that will begin July 1, 2020, and end June 30, 2022. The cost would be $3.7 million the first year and $7.5 million in the second year.

The request is based on a staffing model that considers the complexity of clerk’s office caseloads, as well as the volume. General district courts handled about 2.8 million cases and conducted about 3.4 million hearings last year. Juvenile and domestic relations courts handled about 445,000 cases and 1.1 million hearings in 2018.

A case involving a civil violation or infraction can be handled in 15 minutes, but requests for protective orders take 100 minutes for general district deputy clerks. In juvenile courts, a mental health case generally takes 56 minutes, while child dependency cases require two hours of work.

Salaries are relatively low and emotional stress high, especially in cases involving juveniles, Hade said. “It’s very difficult to listen to some of [the cases] and then go home.”

As a result, staff turnover is high, with an average of 16.8%. Between 2016 and 2018, combined courts had the highest staff turnover rate. Combined with retirements, half of general district court staff turned over during the two-year period, Hade said.

Other factors include new legislative mandates and the state’s decision last year to fill 33 open judgeships that require more staff time and training for support, he said. “That helped in one regard, but put pressure in another regard.”

Scrutiny of public financing intensifies after $1.5B downtown redevelopment deal​ clears Planning Commission

Days after clearing a procedural hurdle, the $1.5 billion plan to redevelop downtown Richmond around a new arena is facing renewed scrutiny for its reliance on a special tax zone.

The Richmond Planning Commission last week unanimously endorsed six ordinances pertaining to zoning, right-of-way changes and the sale of city-owned land for the massive project, helping it move through a multi-pronged review process that will end with a final vote by the City Council.

But the deal Mayor Levar Stoney’s administration has billed as a “no risk” proposition for the city faced a new round of questions from the council-appointed panel tasked with vetting it, which met Saturday.

At issue was a special zone covering a broad swath of downtown that is integral to the deal’s financing. If established, the zone would divert future real estate tax dollars from development and assessment growth in the area over a 30-year period to finance a replacement for the Richmond Coliseum.

In the first five years, the city would commit an estimated $17 million worth of downtown tax growth to repay investors in the arena portion of the project, said John Gerner, vice chairman of the Navy Hill Development Advisory Commission. That money would otherwise go to the general fund, used to pay for basic city services.

Over the 30-year bond repayment period, the amount — a calculation based on an estimated property assessment growth of 2% annually within the special zone — totals more than $300 million.

“It’s our responsibility to the council to let them know that this is what’s being committed to the project if they approve this plan,” Gerner said.

NH District Corp., the developer that submitted the plans to the city, disputed the contention in a statement.

“We will correct the record soon so that the City Council can make its ultimate decision based on accurate information,” said Jeff Kelley, an NH District Corp. spokesman.

Gerner said he stood by the figures , which he pulled from a report made public by the Stoney administration and generated by a firm NH District Corp. hired. Representatives from the administration and NH District Corp. did not dispute the numbers at the meeting, nor have they sought any clarification from him in the days since, Gerner said.

Jim Nolan, a Stoney spokesman, said Gerner’s presentation “reflects an inaccurate understanding of the financing structure of the project.”

“The city’s financial advisors, as well as our third-party consultant, have shown that the project could perform at less than half of our current projections and the city would still come out ahead.”

The zone, called a tax-increment financing district, encompasses an area eight times larger than the publicly owned parcels where the mixed-use development and new arena would rise. Under the plan, NH District Corp. would pay the city $15.8 million for that property.

City leaders and NH District Corp. representatives have said the project would net $1 billion in new tax revenue, or more than three times what the city would stand to collect in new taxes by not moving forward with the deal — a scenario they have repeatedly termed “do nothing.”

Stoney has said his administration negotiated legal protections that would keep the project from hurting the city’s bond rating, debt capacity or financial health.

But Gerner said there is “no guarantee” money pledged to repay bondholders would ever return to the city’s general fund coffers, which he said demonstrates risk .

A replacement for the existing coliseum is the centerpiece of redevelopment plans submitted by NH District Corp., the entity led by Dominion Energy CEO Thomas F. Farrell II.

Its plan calls for a 17,500-seat arena; a high-rise hotel ; 2,500 apartments, with 480 reserved for people earning less than the region’s median income; 1 million square feet of commercial and office space; 260,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space; renovation of the historic Blues Armory; a new transfer plaza for GRTC Transit System bus riders; and infrastructure improvements.

The city would owe more than $600 million over the course of 30 years for the new arena, which NH District Corp. would lease and operate. The Stoney administration has said it wants to repay the debt faster to save money in the long run.

Investors with which NH District Corp. is working would spend $900 million on the first wave of privately owned development and $1.3 billion total.

Taxes generated by the private investment alone — estimated at $718 million over 30 years — are enough to cover the debt payments on the arena bond, Nolan said.

The Stoney administration, the city’s financial advisers and representatives from NH District Corp. have said a larger zone is necessary to make the project an attractive investment opportunity for prospective bondholders. To do that, they have said the city must show it will have at least $1.50 to pay back each $1 it owes on the arena bond.

Future real estate taxes account for 60% of the revenue needed to pay back investors under the current plan. Additionally, all taxes NH District Corp. would owe the city for admissions, meals, lodging, sales and business licenses would go to pay back bondholders, not to the general fund, until the bonds are repaid.

The commission is inspecting the figures as a part of its council-ordered review of the deal. It must produce a report of its recommendations before Christmas. Its next meeting is scheduled for Nov. 2.

The council is also in the process of hiring a consultant to review the project. Its request for proposals closed Thursday. Ordinances advancing the project are listed on the Nov. 12 council agenda.

'Ball dropped' on state mental hospital expansion, causing 9-month delay, perhaps $1M in added costs

The expansion of Western State Hospital in Staunton will be delayed by nine months and inflate costs by about $1 million because an architect working with a state agency based drawings for the $22.3 million project on an outdated building code.

Leaders of the House Appropriations Committee reacted with outrage Monday to a revelation by state mental health officials that the 56-bed expansion of the mental institution won’t be done until April 2021, a delay that comes during a crisis in overcrowding at state mental hospitals.

“I am bitterly disappointed at what I’m hearing today because the ball has been dropped,” House Appropriations Chairman Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, told Mira Signer, acting commissioner of the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services.

Jones said the mistake showed “a lack of leadership ... at the highest level in this administration” and reminded Signer, who stepped into the job in August after the sudden death of Commissioner Hughes Melton, of the urgency of the project.

“We’re not building cabins at a state park,” he said. “We’re providing a service that is desperately needed in the commonwealth.”

The Western State expansion was part of a bond package then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe proposed and the General Assembly approved in 2016. The project was proposed as an addition to the new, $140 million hospital that opened in 2013. It was originally scheduled to be completed by next July.

The architect, working with the behavioral health agency’s architecture and engineering staff, based the design and drawings on the previous Virginia Uniform Statewide Building Code requirements used to build the new hospital, but those rules had changed in 2012 and again in 2015.

The Department of General Services reviewed and rejected the drawings in 2017 because they did not conform to the previous or current state building code, Director Joe Damico said Monday. The department now has a complete set of corrected drawings for the project, which he said will be bid for construction by the end of this year or the beginning of the next.

Had the original drawings been based on the proper building code, Damico told the House committee, “We would be under construction.”

He estimated that the delay will increase the cost of steel and other materials for the expansion by about 4.5%, which would be just over $1 million for a $22.3 million project.

Signer said the mistake forced the state to treat the project as “a new stand-alone project that required a full design phase,” rather than an expansion of the existing 246-bed hospital.

Appropriations Vice-Chairman Steve Landes, R-Augusta, who represents the Staunton area, protested that the project was supposed to be “an addition — it isn’t a new building.”

“We’re not talking about building a whole new hospital,” Landes said.

Signer and Damico did not name the architect, but Signer said the mistake occurred during a “staff transition” in the behavioral health department’s architecture and engineering office.

The revelation comes at a sensitive time for legislators, who already are grappling with a new state proposal for temporary staffing of 56 beds at Catawba Hospital near Salem.

The Catawba expansion would require use of $4.1 million in internal funds the behavioral health department already holds, as well as $19.6 million in new state funds in the two-year budget that Gov. Ralph Northam will propose in December.

The proposal is aimed at relieving overcrowding of state mental hospitals, primarily by involuntarily detained adult and geriatric patients that private psychiatric facilities decline to admit under a 2014 law that requires state institutions to provide the “bed of last resort” for civil patients under temporary detention orders.

Signer, a former mental health advocate, said the state’s nine mental hospitals were operating at 97.5% of their capacity two weeks ago, with five housing more patients than beds, including the Commonwealth Center for Children and Adolescents next to Western State in Staunton.

“No matter how high the hospital census goes, there are statutory obligations” for the state to accept civil TDOs and forensic patients with criminal charges, she said.

Jones asked whether state behavioral health officials had offered to reimburse private hospitals at a higher rate for accepting civil patients under temporary detention orders as an alternative to the temporary expansion proposed at Catawba.

“I want to make sure we have done that,” he said. “If not, we should have.”

With literacy rates dropping in Virginia, Charles City County bucks the trend

CHARLES CITY COUNTY — A small conference room tucked behind the librarian’s desk in the Charles City County Elementary School library holds the key to the school’s success.

There, on index cards representing the school’s roughly 330-student population, teachers and administrators pore over data and figure out how to make sure every student is reading on grade level, a schoolwide focus that’s to credit for the biggest reading improvements in the Richmond region.

An index card for every student — 7 in 10 of whom come from low-income families in the small rural county east of Richmond — is on the wall of the room, their name on the front with notes and data on the back that shows a student’s progress toward reading on grade level. If a student’s name is in green, they’re on track. A red name, though, means that student needs more attention. Teachers and administrators go through every student every week.

“Instruction is king and data tells us what the instruction should be,” said Principal Ed VanDyke.

When VanDyke got to the school four years ago, the data told him the focus needed to be literacy. He’s pushed to make it the bedrock of the school.

The percentage of students passing the critical third-grade reading state test at Charles City Elementary School is still below the state average, but the school saw the largest improvement in the region on the test last year at a time when the rate dropped across the state and Richmond region.

The county school system grew 9 percentage points, from a 58% pass rate in 2017-18 to 67% in 2018-19, making it one of just four in the region to improve. It’s tied with Shenandoah County for the sixth-largest year-over-year boost in the state.

The test, experts and research suggest, is an important — but not definitive — predictor of students’ future academic success.

School leaders say the gains can be attributed to not always going by the book, instead installing new curriculum, having teachers spend more time with students and regularly analyzing data that tells teachers who needs more help.

“I fundamentally believe that we can change the world if all kids can read on grade by third grade,” VanDyke said. “That’s my push here.”

Across the state, scores on the third-grade reading Standards of Learning test last year fell for the third straight year, down from a 76% pass rate in the 2015-16 school year to 71% this year, according to data released in August by the Virginia Department of Education.

The decline is especially stark in the Richmond region, where, on average, schools saw a 2.6 percentage point decline on the test last school year. Two in three students in the region are passing the test, according to state data.

Charles City, about 30 minutes east of Richmond, faces problems others in the region don’t. There’s no grocery store, although a Dollar General is scheduled to open later this month. A small medical clinic provides basic medical and dental care, but residents must leave the county for more advanced appointments, and the nearest hospital is more than 20 miles away. A little more than half of the county’s households have access to broadband internet, the eighth-lowest percentage in the state.

Despite the county’s challenges, the school system is trying to get students on the same level as their regional peers.

When you walk into any elementary school classroom in the morning, the focus is on reading.

In the pre-K and kindergarten hallway, students in one classroom do “Spiderman claps” after successfully reading a book, pretending to be the fictional superhero. In a second-grade classroom, students are in small groups reading aloud to one another while others focus on punctuation and teacher Angela Carrigan works individually with another small group.

Students are working on pronouns in Juanita Pate’s classroom, the third time she’s had this group of students.

The school concentrates on reading in the mornings when students are fresh and ready for the day. Every staff member knows why: Students in Charles City were falling behind when it came to literacy with scores dropping every year since 2013-14.

“Charles City Elementary School has built a strong reading program that has been implemented and trained with consistency and with fidelity,” said Charles City schools chief David Gaston. “The entire building is focused on building key literacy skills that will allow students to be successful in school and beyond.”

The school has consolidated its reading programs from five when VanDyke first got to the school to one, using national literacy expert and former reading specialist Jan Richardson’s guided reading system to teach students. With one program across the school, each teacher has a guided reading companion book they can reference while teaching.

“We needed to get some consistency,” VanDyke said.

A computer-based program called Lexia is also being used daily by students starting in first grade. Students work independently on the computers — the school system gives students in grades 3-12 their own laptops for schoolwork despite inferior internet access in the small rural county — and work at their own pace. Teachers get reports via email on a student’s progress. If they need to intervene, the reports show them where the student is struggling.

The program, which is used by districts across the country, allows for the teachers — assisted by just one reading specialist — to spend time individually with students while others still learn through Lexia.

Students are completing entries in a math journal and practicing sight words as they jump rope in gym class. A new reading room separate from the library includes more than $40,000 worth of books for students at their reading level. Students know a teacher is focused on reading before they even walk into the room, with each teacher proudly displaying on a door sign what book they’re reading. The school has held events to show parents how to work with their children on reading.

“We’re really all working together toward the same goal,” said assistant principal Heather Kennedy. “At the end of the day, if you can’t read, you can’t succeed.”

Said Gaston: “We’re pushing hard to get kids to where they need to go.”

In some cases, teachers literally go with their students.

Two teachers last year kept the same cohort of students and moved with them from second to third grade, a process known as “looping.” Proponents of looping say it helps with teachers’ relationships with students and understanding what each students need. Rather than figure all that out in the first month of the school year, a class can pick up where they left off in the spring.

“They hit the ground running,” VanDyke said.

Opponents suggest it doesn’t let students be exposed to different teaching methods and, if a teacher has a negative relationship with some students, that continues for another year. Looping is not for every teacher, VanDyke said, but can help students learn, especially when a veteran teacher changes grades with them.

Such is the case with Juanita Pate, a 19-year teaching veteran who went from second to third grade last year with her class of 24 students and this year moved with them to fourth grade.

“The students are great, so I was looking forward to teaching them again,” Pate said. “The relationship with a child is key in helping them not only be successful but to build confidence.”

She added: “I already know what students are struggling and what students met their benchmarks.”

Inside the school’s data room, dozens of students’ names remain in red. They’re not where they need to be. VanDyke sees that students are struggling and shakes his head while wondering aloud what more can be done to get them on grade level.

“We’ve got to get kids to be able to read,” he says.

It will take the entire school to do it.