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Damontae Miller wasn’t expecting the kick.
Biting into his school lunch the Friday before Thanksgiving, the Armstrong High School senior realized that there was a little bit more to his chicken drumstick than just the homemade barbecue sauce coating the outside: A buffalo sauce infusion underneath packed more spice and flavor to the meal.
Miller has noticed a change in his school lunches this year, a shift from reheated food to homemade cuisine. The initiative is part of a Richmond Public Schools pilot program in partnership with a company founded by the former head chef of one of the top restaurants in the world.
“It’s fresh,” Miller said after his meal. “We know it’s fresh because we can see them back there making it.”
Behind the service area in the Armstrong cafeteria, kitchen staff members make from-scratch cornbread and red skin potato salad and dunk the chicken drumsticks in the homemade sauce.
Armstrong, located in the city’s East End, is the first school in Richmond to pilot the program. No longer do students like Miller, who used to skip lunch altogether in favor of snacks, complain about their meals, but instead boast about them routinely to the staff that makes them.
“It’s something natural that they seem to enjoy,” said Chanelle Smith, who has worked in school food service for the past dozen years and at Armstrong for the past three.
Smith said students will stop her outside of school to ask if they will be served certain dishes again.
Three days a week, students get the likes of fried rice with teriyaki chicken, rotini Bolognese and chicken Alfredo. On the other two days, they are served their traditional school menu.
“When you want the top of the line, you go fresh,” said Susan Roberson, the director of the district’s school nutrition services department. “Fresh is always the best.”
The city’s partner in the effort, Brigaid, is top of the line. The company’s founder, Daniel Giusti, returned to the U.S. from Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2016 after serving as a chef at Noma, which has been ranked as the best restaurant in the world four times this decade. He arrived with a new passion — feeding students — and started Brigaid in New London, Conn.
Richmond is one of four districts participating in Brigaid’s training program, where a school’s kitchen staff is trained in making the school meals that are not only homemade but also in compliance with strict federal health regulations — a barrier, Roberson said, to widespread from-scratch meals in schools.
“These kids don’t have a choice in the matter. When they have to show up to school every day, this is what’s offered to them,” Giusti said. “It’s important for us to provide the best food possible.”
Richmond is paying Brigaid $120,000 over two years, a contract that includes the training, equipment and program management. Roberson had heard about Giusti’s earlier efforts in schools and reached out to him as the district looked to improve the nutrition of its food as part of its five-year strategic plan.
The federal government reimburses the school district $3.50 for every school lunch sold, Roberson said, an amount that limits the district’s ability to make homemade food.
“Whether it’s scratch or convenience, we take pride in what we provide our students,” she said. “For this, we’re able to expose them to something they don’t normally get in school, and that’s exciting.”
John Thompson, the chef training Armstrong’s kitchen workers, helped get the program off the ground in Connecticut. He said kitchen staff — most of whom don’t have a cooking background — are inspired, even requesting some training recipes to replicate at home.
Thompson is the de facto head chef of the Armstrong kitchen, overseeing the recipes each day and the training of the staff members. With the staff at Armstrong now trained, Thompson is moving on to other city schools that are part of the pilot.
Myron King, one of the kitchen staff members at Armstrong, said the training has opened him up to new things because he’s normally too impatient to cook things from scratch.
“I’ve learned a lot,” King said as he coated one of the 960 chicken drumsticks Armstrong was preparing for students.
Thompson added that in the 10 weeks of training at Armstrong, the school’s kitchen staff has learned more than 50 from-scratch recipes.
“Sometimes the method that may take a bit longer may ultimately be worth it as it will taste so much better,” Thompson said. “This idea of taking an extra step when necessary or simply thinking about those steps was amazing.”
The program is expanding into Boushall Middle School and Blackwell Elementary School this year with plans for three more in the 2020-21 school year.
The price of medical care for Virginia’s 30,000 inmates now accounts for one-fifth of all operating expenses for state prisons and is driven in part by an aging inmate population, a new report says.
The cost of inmate health care grew from roughly $140 million per year to more than $230 million in the decade that ended June 30, according to figures in the “Update on Inmate Health Care” report from the staff of the Virginia House Appropriations Committee.
Fourteen percent of state prisoners are at least 55 years old, up from 8.5% in 2012, the report found. A review last year by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission reported the number of inmates age 50 or older increased by nearly 40% from 2010 to 2016, and there was no indication that the growth rate was slowing.
The House of Delegates’ report noted that Virginia has the second-tightest criteria for releasing elderly inmates in the country and that it is the only state that does not allow for the release of inmates with serious, non-terminal illnesses or those with permanent disabilities.
A 1976 U.S. Supreme Court decision held that under the Eighth Amendment bar against cruel and unusual punishment, inmates have a right to a standard of health care that is available in the community.
To be eligible for conditional release in Virginia under current law, an inmate must be 65 or older and have served five years of their sentence, or be 60 and have served at least 10 years; or have a terminal diagnosis with less than three months to live; and he or she cannot have been convicted of capital murder.
Fewer than 20 Virginia prisoners have been released under those policies in the past five years, the report says. Most other states have established a parole-like process to review inmate applications for conditional release that make the cost of the inmate’s medical needs a factor to be considered, according to the report.
In Virginia, geriatric conditional release is handled by the parole board, and releases for those with less than three months to live — if not also eligible for geriatric conditional release — are ruled on by the governor’s office.
There may be legislation introduced in the upcoming General Assembly to address the growing medical costs, said state Del. Mark D. Sickles, D-Fairfax, who plans to reintroduce a bill that died last year that would have expanded so-called “compassionate” releases.
It would allow for any prisoner — not convicted of capital murder — who is terminally ill or who is permanently physically disabled to be eligible for consideration by the parole board for conditional release. It would also allow the parole board to conditionally release geriatric inmates without the inmates being required to petition the parole board for such a release.
Sickles said there was opposition from prosecutors concerned that too many people would be released and from some other legislators who questioned how it could be determined that a prisoner was terminally ill.
“Doctors do that every day,” he said.
Sickles said that with a number of new prosecutors and because Democrats now control the General Assembly, his bill might be passed in the upcoming session.
“I think we have a better shot now,” he said.
“Our medical bill for our incarcerated population is over $200 million,” said Sickles, adding that his bill would save money and show some compassion to deserving offenders.
“There would be a very small set of patients that are over 60 that have a terminal diagnosis,” he said.
Sickles said many remaining inmates may be “the worst of the worst.” But he said “the system needs to be looked at hard. I believe that Adrianne Bennett [the parole board chair] and her fellow parole board members are doing an excellent job. They’re trying to get uniformity and policies in place.”
Last year’s JLARC report found that only Kansas had a more stringent time requirement than Virginia’s. The Virginia prison system spent an average of $61,000 for 65 inmates who died in the year that ended June 30, 2017.
JLARC reported that those 65 inmates amounted to just 0.2% of the inmate population, but their end-of-life care accounted for 4.7% of the Department of Corrections’ health care spending.
According to JLARC, Virginia spends more on inmates with complex long-term medical conditions — an average of $20,000 for 810 such inmates — than on inmates generally. Those 810 comprised 2% of the inmate population but received 20% of the department’s health care spending.
The report to the House Appropriations Committee said the Department of Corrections uses outside contractors to provide medical care for 15,000 inmates at 14 facilities with high levels of medical need and a history of difficulty recruiting qualified staff.
But the practice carries risk — as illustrated by the experience at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, the report noted.
The corrections department has been under a consent decree since 2016 stemming from a federal class action lawsuit alleging inadequate medical care that was being provided by the contract health care provider at the prison.
“Compliance with the consent decree has resulted in health care spending at Fluvanna increasing from $11.4 million in 2016 to $23.4 million” in the year that ended June 30, wrote fiscal analyst David Reynolds. The department has also spent $2.8 million in legal fees generated by health care lawsuits since 2016.
The JLARC study found that health care vendors are generally unable to provide stable staffing and that facilities with high turnover rates have resulted in higher medical grievance filings. The department is trying to find ways to better manage the risks, Reynolds wrote.
Republicans are not likely to force a vote on empty judgeships — including a seat on the Virginia Court of Appeals — before they lose control of the General Assembly.
Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, and other Republican leaders say they see no way for the current assembly to meet to elect judges without bipartisan and bicameral agreement, even though three special legislative sessions have not been formally adjourned.
“I think in the absence of bipartisan agreement on judges, which is within reason on some judges, it is unlikely the GA will move forward before the 2020 session,” Norment said in a text message on Friday.
His assessment is shared by other Republican leaders, who say consensus would be necessary before attempting to persuade retired or defeated legislators to return to Richmond to vote on judges before the new General Assembly takes office on Jan. 1 with Democratic majorities in both chambers.
“The consensus has to come first,” said Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Ryan McDougle, Hanover.
Democratic leaders have had little to say publicly about judicial vacancies, including the appellate seat opened by the election of Judge Rossie Alston to a federal district court judgeship this year, knowing that they will control judicial selection in the General Assembly next month. Alston was sworn in to the federal judgeship in August.
The apparent decision by Republicans not to push to fill 20 vacant judgeships, not including Alston’s seat, surprised Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and a veteran commentator on Virginia politics.
“I would expect the party in power would try to use whatever leverage it has left,” Rozell said. “But if Republicans don’t see a path forward, they look better doing nothing and signaling that they respect the outcome of the elections.”
There are seven vacant judgeships in circuit courts, seven in juvenile and domestic relations district courts and six in general district courts.
House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, didn’t discount the possibility entirely after House Republicans elected him earlier this month to serve as minority leader beginning in January.
But Gilbert acknowledged that the window of opportunity is small.
“There is a chance if we can come to some consensus on a well-regarded jurist that everyone thinks is fine,” the former prosecutor said.
If so, however, there would be few chances to convene the current legislature before the new assembly convenes at noon on Jan. 8.
“The only realistic opportunity would be right before the session starts,” Gilbert said.
The Senate Committee for Courts of Justice and the House Judicial Panel will meet jointly on Dec. 6 to interview 49 sitting judges for re-election, including Supreme Court Justice Bernard Goodwyn.
“That’s not electing them, but that’s setting them up to be elected,” said Carl Tobias, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Richmond.
Re-electing sitting judges also isn’t the same as the current assembly filling judicial vacancies with what Tobias called “lame duck kind of appointments.”
The logistical challenge of convening the current assembly would be compounded by the difficulty of ensuring that Republicans would be able to hold the votes they need in chambers that are already closely divided.
In the House, Republicans currently hold a 50-48 advantage with the early departures of Del. Matthew James, D-Portsmouth, for a job at the Department of General Services and Del. Steve Landes, R-Augusta, who has been sworn in as circuit court clerk in Augusta County.
Altogether, 13 House Republicans have retired, lost their re-election bids or moved to a seat in the Senate. Del. Chris Stolle, R-Virginia Beach, has asked for a recount of his 27-vote loss.
In the Senate, Republicans hold a 20-19 edge with the resignation of Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, earlier this year for a job at the Virginia Lottery. On Nov. 5, the GOP lost Senate seats held by Sen. Glen Sturtevant, R-Chesterfield, and Sen. Dick Black, R-Loudoun, so Democrats will hold a 21-19 advantage in the new assembly.
“If there’s no chance of success, take the high road,” Rozell said.
Democrats finally hold the power in Richmond, after being locked out for decades in part due to gerrymandering. How they’ll exercise that power over Virginia’s redistricting process could change the state’s politicking for decades.
Lawmakers will convene in Richmond in January for a second and final look at a proposed constitutional amendment that would shift power over the drawing of legislative and congressional districts from the General Assembly to a 16-member commission of legislators and citizens.
Gov. Ralph Northam said in an interview that he would support the measure if it clears the legislature. Incoming Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, says he would back it, but incoming Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, would not go as far.
The amendment cleared its first hurdle this year with bipartisan support in a GOP-controlled General Assembly, when advocates pushed for reforms they say would result in more fair, equitable elections for both parties. If the amendment passes again in its current form, it would then go to state voters in a referendum. If voters back the referendum, the amendment would become law in 2021. The governor would have to sign enabling legislation.
As Democrats head into the 2020 legislative session, the amendments’ chances rest on whether Democrats decide to relinquish some of their hard-fought power or walk back support of the reform.
“You’re likely to see some protest from Democratic activists, on the notion that after the GOP controlled the General Assembly and drew the maps, it’s only fair for Democrats to be able to do the same thing this time,” said John McGlennon, a policy professor at the College of William & Mary.
“It will come down to a question of whether legislators feel that they’ve made a public commitment to this.”
Either way, lawmakers have to make up their minds in early 2020. The counting of the population by the U.S. Census Bureau will take place April 1. Virginia will get its results by the end of 2020, an expedited schedule made to accommodate redistricting ahead of the state’s elections for the House of Delegates in November 2021.
Saslaw said in an interview that he would support the measure: “If it comes out of committee, I’m going to vote for it.”
Virginia Legislative Black Caucus Chairwoman Mamie Locke of Hampton was more enthusiastic, saying she is confident that concerns among some members, specifically caucus members, can be assuaged.
Saslaw’s counterpart in the House, Filler-Corn, said: “We’ll be talking to our members. It’s an issue we’ve been discussing and have been working on our list of priorities.”
Northam said of the proposed amendment: “That’s going to make its way through the legislature. If it gets here, then I would certainly support it.”
Northam, who served in the state Senate from 2008 to 2014 — and who voted for the GOP’s redistricting plan in 2011 — emphasized his support for bipartisan redistricting, describing his years campaigning in a gerrymandered, 6th Senate District on the Eastern Shore.
“It was contiguous only by water,” Northam said. “It wasn’t good representation.”
Republican leaders in the House and Senate, now leading parties in the minority as the redistricting process ramps up, said they support the amendment.
Democrats, who controlled the legislature for nearly the entire 20th century, routinely consolidated their gains through partisan gerrymandering. For example, after the 1990 census Democrats drew Rep. George Allen, R-7th, out of his congressional seat. He was elected governor in 1993.
McGlennon said demographics should help assuage any Democratic fears of bipartisan redistricting.
Virginia is increasingly leaning left, support that is emanating from population growth in the state’s urban centers and into suburban Virginia. At the same time, the state’s rural counties — where Republicans anchor their support — are seeing their populations dwindle.
“More than 50% of the growth that has occurred based on census estimates has been in Northern Virginia. Central cities, which have tended to elect Democrats, are growing,” McGlennon said.
“On the other hand, rural areas are declining by and large. The places that tend to be growing in rural part of the state — Blacksburg and Radford — are university communities, which are going to lean for Democrats.”
“Democrats fare well under a fair fight,” McGlennon added.
House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, who will become the minority leader in January, said he hopes a bipartisan redistricting process will benefit rural voters who might otherwise see their votes diluted.
“I think it’s of tremendous concern to rural Virginia that the incoming leaders of both the House and Senate are both from Fairfax County. Rural Virginia is very different from urban and suburban Virginia, and we just don’t want to be forgotten and merely ruled over by the areas that are densely populated,” Gilbert said.
“I think there are lots of avenues for a truly nonpartisan redistricting process to balance all of those concerns, or at least as many as possible. I doubt any such balance would occur if we didn’t arrive at a legitimate process.”
A bipartisan process, advocates say, might also reduce racial gerrymandering — the breaking up of minority communities across districts to dilute their votes, or the packing of the same communities into single districts to concentrate their voting power into one or a few seats.
But some members of the Legislative Black Caucus opposed the proposed amendment during this year’s legislative session, saying that the measure doesn’t require any of the members on the redistricting commission to be African American or from other minority communities.
“We have great concerns about having African American representation in the room for redistricting,” Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, chairman of the caucus, said at the time. “And this doesn’t guarantee that.”
Courts have shown a willingness to step in on this issue, but it’s a process that could take years. Virginia saw two successful gerrymandering cases brought by Democratic voters resulting from challenges to the Virginia congressional districts and House of Delegates districts drawn in 2011.
In January 2016, a three-judge panel imposed a new Virginia congressional map that dramatically changed the 3rd District, represented by Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott, and the adjacent 4th District, paving the way for Democrat Don McEachin to pick up the seat.
One challenge to the 2011 redistricting process of the House of Delegates — which was controlled by Republicans accused of racial gerrymandering — ended only recently. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed a GOP appeal. That meant a court-imposed redrawn House of Delegates map would stand for this November’s elections. That redrawn map was key to Democrat Clint Jenkins’ defeat of House Appropriations Chairman Chris Jones, R-Suffolk.
When it comes to partisan gerrymandering, federal courts will provide no reprieve. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this past summer — in two cases dealing with gerrymandering in North Carolina and Maryland — that federal courts have no role in partisan gerrymandering disputes, referring to it as a purely political question.
Advocates for redistricting reform see that ruling as another reason for states to safeguard their own processes through policy. Inevitably, that includes some power for the minority party, and making some safely-blue and safely-red districts more competitive, said Brian Cannon, executive director of OneVirginia2021.
“The pendulum swings back and forth. The process we’re setting up today does need to have protections for the minority party — it’s the only way this whole democracy thing works,” he said. “There are plenty of districts in Virginia that are purple. We should let voters there decide who represents them. Both parties have a reasonable shot at winning if hard work, merit and ideas are more important than creative cartography.”
Ultimately, Cannon said, there are two paths to passage of the constitutional amendment, one easy and another less so.
“The easy way to do it is with good enabling legislation, broad buy-in, the overwhelming bipartisan majority we saw the first time around. Let’s do that again,” Cannon said.
“The hard way would be that one or both of the party leaders tries to hamstring the process in committee. We cobble together Republican support and die-hard Democrats. There’s a nasty floor fight,” he added.
“That’s the messy way to do it.”
Logistically, the constitutional amendment on redistricting would require a simple majority vote in the General Assembly on the same exact language that lawmakers approved last year.
Under the current language, the state would form a commission with four legislators of each party and eight citizen members. Legislative leaders from both parties would proffer a list of citizen members from which a panel of retired judges would select four for each party.
During the coming session, lawmakers would also need to agree on additional legislation to enact the amendment.
Some of that is straightforward: Lawmakers have to agree on ballot language, pay for putting it on the ballot and set a timeline for implementation should voters approve it.
Other aspects of the process are more politically fraught. Because the language in the constitutional amendment is brief, the details of how exactly legislative members of the bipartisan commission would be selected and whether it will include explicit representation for minority communities are decisions for the General Assembly in 2020.
Locke said that process might help address the concerns of some caucus members who feel the process doesn’t guarantee a role for minorities.
“From the perspective of some members of the black caucus, not to speak for the caucus, the issue has been more interest in the criteria that will be used,” Locke said. “It’s who [the process will include] and how the process will move forward to ensure that minorities are going to get a fair shake.”
Still, Locke said she is confident.
“I think that individuals want to see this work out because there is a commitment to the voters to pick their legislators, rather than legislators pick their voters. The energy for that is there,” Locke said. “With that in mind, I think that there will be an effort to try to work out a compromise.”
Cannon said that under a “Democratic trifecta,” lawmakers can ensure the commission is diverse. “That’s what there are still opportunities to do.”