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In Nation & World | Blitz of testimony caps week of public impeachment hearings | Page A10
Jon Klein, who founded the organization 20 years ago before moving, reflected on how it has grown.
Bill Harrison stood on a small ladder ready to give instructions.
The executive director of Diversity Richmond, an organization that on Thursday celebrated its 20 years of service to the region’s LGBTQ population, shouted through a megaphone: “1-2-3.”
Dozens in the crowd shot back: “Raise that flag.”
First it was the U.S. flag; then Virginia’s.
Finally, a rainbow flag was raised closest to the entrance of the building, tall enough so drivers on Interstate 64/95 can see it and be reminded of the community’s presence in Richmond.
The three new flags, Diversity board member Jean Segner said, are “large and bold and proud.”
The organization was founded in 1999 by Jon Klein as the Gay Community Center of Richmond, serving sexual and gender minority people in central Virginia. A year later, a thrift store opened — its name has changed from Out of the Closet Thrift to Diversity Thrift — in what has become the organization’s most well-known service.
The store now sells north of $1 million in items every year, Klein said Thursday.
The group serves as the hub of the region’s LGBTQ community, raising money through its thrift store and fundraising while also hosting community events and time for fellowship.
Klein moved to Boston in 2009 and now works for an organization that provides housing to formerly homeless people. His presence Thursday garnered two standing ovations, as he reminisced about the organization’s founding and how it has grown.
“I’ve just been so impressed,” Klein said, also highlighting the work of Side by Side, an organization he founded that helps LGBTQ youths.
Diversity Richmond’s 47,000-square-foot center, located on Sherwood Avenue off Hermitage Road, also has bingo in its event hall, the site of Thursday night’s celebration.
The event included dancing by Ezibu Muntu, a Richmond-based African dance company, and the awarding of $50,000 in grants to other organizations.
“We need to do more than we have ever done before,” Harrison said about giving away money. “We are living in a political environment where hate is being licensed and hate is being encouraged.”
Zakia McKensey, the executive director of the Nationz Foundation, a group that provides support such as emergency housing to the LGBTQ population, helped raise the rainbow flag earlier in the night. The foundation she created was awarded the largest grant of the night, $20,000.
“It’s pretty awesome that Richmond is becoming more and more inclusive and we’re able to celebrate our diversity,” she said.
Last year, Richmond received the highest score in Virginia on a scorecard created by the Human Rights Campaign that judges cities on their initiatives to support LGBTQ communities.
Diversity Richmond has been on the front lines of that effort.
The organization has given away more than $1.1 million to local nonprofits since 1999. The thrift store donates clothes, household goods and books to city school students and families.
Its work, said longtime patron Bob Enerson, is about more than just being a store (although he’s very satisfied with the $50 Oriental rug he got about a year ago).
“It’s about community, and that’s what we love,” Enerson said.
The daughter of Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office Cpl. Eric Sutphin, shot to death in 2006 by William C. Morva, urged lawmakers Thursday to end capital punishment in Virginia.
“It is time for the death penalty to be abolished in order to better care for the victim’s family members, to better serve the public good and to protect human life,” said Rachel Sutphin, now a student at Columbia Theological Seminary.
Sutphin was 9 when her father was shot to death during a manhunt for Morva, who also fatally shot an unarmed hospital security guard while escaping custody. Morva was executed in 2017, the most recent person put to death in the state.
Sutphin spoke Thursday at an event arranged by Virginians For Alternatives to the Death Penalty. Michael Stone, the group’s executive director, said there are several potential sponsors in both chambers for an abolition bill in the upcoming General Assembly session.
He said it is unlikely such a bill would pass in its first year but has high hopes for eventual passage. He also said, “I don’t think abolition is going to happen unless it is bipartisan.”
Stone said Sutphin is one of 13 surviving family members of murder victims who have endorsed a sign-on letter asking the General Assembly to end the death penalty.
Capital punishment has come to a virtual halt in Virginia, which, with 113 executions since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed capital punishment to resume in 1976, is second only to Texas with 565.
No death sentence has been imposed in the state for more than eight years and there are only three people on Virginia’s death row, one of them with a sentence held to be flawed by a federal appeals court.
Stone said Thursday that given questions raised by federal courts in the two other cases, it is possible there will be no one on Virginia’s death row within a year. The state’s death row population once hovered around 60.
Shortly before Morva was executed, Sutphin said, her moral and religious beliefs led her to send a plea to then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe asking that Morva’s death sentence be commuted to life without parole. However, she said Thursday that she never received a response.
Her grandmother, the mother of Eric Sutphin, told The Roanoke Times shortly before Morva’s execution that she hoped it would be carried out, although she felt empathy for Morva’s family.
Rachel Sutphin said Thursday, “I have experienced the death penalty to be an ineffective, outdated punishment. Mr. Morva’s execution brought no solace to me, but instead it strengthened my resolve that the death penalty needs to be abolished.”
State utility regulators on Thursday rejected a request from Dominion Energy that would have increased the utility’s profit margin through small increases in Virginia ratepayer bills.
The State Corporation Commission ruled that it would hold the rate of return at the current level of 9.2% — rejecting Dominion’s request for a return of 10.75%, a rate the SCC said is not “consistent with the public interest.”
The state’s largest utility had sought to boost its rate of return, arguing that the increase would be necessary to attract investment and support the billions in capital projects it plans through 2021. One of those projects includes a massive offshore wind farm near Virginia Beach.
The SCC rebutted that argument, writing that it “represents neither the actual cost of equity in the marketplace nor a reasonable [return on investment].” The 9.2% rate, they wrote, “permits the attraction of capital on reasonable terms” and “fairly compensates investors for the risks assumed.”
Dominion did not push back on the ruling.
“The SCC order in effect confirms our existing return on equity. We look forward to continuing our work to make our home state a national leader in clean, affordable, reliable energy,” spokeswoman Audrey Cannon said in a statement.
Dominion’s request was widely opposed by SCC staff, the attorney general’s office, consumer advocates and a group of Democratic lawmakers. They pointed to the $277.3 million in excess profits Dominion collected from state ratepayers last year — a sum that it plans to reinvest instead of issuing refunds.
Combined overearnings from 2017 and 2018 that would qualify for customer refunds amount to $379.7 million — money consumer advocacy groups argue should end up back in ratepayers’ pockets.
“Dominion’s customers won today, thanks to a broad swath of Virginians who opposed the utility monopoly’s request,” said Brennan Gilmore, executive director of Clean Virginia, a group that advocates against Dominion’s monopoly. “The truth is that Dominion and its investors already enjoy an actual return on equity far higher than its approved rate.”
Monopoly utilities are limited in their profit margins. Utilities require a return on investment in order to raise capital to pay for projects that regulators or Virginia law deem in the public interest.
A consultant for Dominion, Robert Hevert, told the commission during a hearing in the spring that the company’s “above average” capital expenditure program will put pressure on its cash flows, “making regulatory support more important” toward the company’s ability to finance the projects and “earn a reasonable return” on those projects.
The attorney general’s office — which had requested that the SCC lower the rate below the 9.2% level to 8.75% or 9.09% — said the SCC’s decision will protect the interests of ratepayers.
“Attorney General [Mark] Herring fought for this lower rate that will save Virginians hundreds of millions of dollars in the coming years,” Herring spokesman Michael Kelly said in a statement. “It was clear that Dominion’s requested rate was too high, and it would have resulted in Virginia families paying more than necessary for electricity.”
Richmond Public Schools is moving forward with plans to drastically shake up how middle and high schools operate in the city.
Superintendent Jason Kamras’ administration this week presented to the School Board its initial proposal for creating theme-based middle and high schools, one of the largest parts of a turnaround plan approved by the board last year.
“This is one of the most important things in our strategic plan,” Kamras said. “It’s about really tapping into our students’ natural curiosity about the world and preparing them to pursue and live their passions in life.”
Part of the presentation included the five proposed themes for the seven middle schools and five high schools in the city — topics that will drive each school’s curriculum and require the hiring of additional teachers. The five themes are: science, technology, engineering and math (STEM); visual and performing arts; languages and international affairs; law, policy and public service; and advanced career and technical education.
Each school would have one of those themes, and students from across the city would use an open enrollment-style system to enroll, meaning a student from the South Side interested in a certain topic could end up at John Marshall High School in the North Side, for example.
Transportation would be provided to students, Kamras said. The district’s current specialty schools — Richmond Community High, Open High and Franklin Military Academy — wouldn’t be affected, he said.
The administration on Monday unveiled its preliminary programs at specific schools, calling for STEM programs at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School and Henderson Middle School — the lowest-performing middle schools in the city.
Tracy Epp, the school system’s chief academic officer, said in her presentation to the board that the schools “are in dire need of radical change.”
Henderson enrolls just 382 students despite having the capacity for 977, according to state data, while MLK is the lowest-performing middle school in Virginia.
MLK, which enrolls 631 students, would get a STEM Academy within the school next fall that would have 100 sixth-grade students. All of sixth grade at Henderson, the smaller school with a sixth-grade class of 128 students this year, would become a STEM Academy.
“Our goal is to start small so that we can execute this initial phase with excellence and be nimble enough to course correct midyear, as necessary,” Epp said.
The proposed timeline Epp laid out showed the programs at MLK and Henderson expanding into seventh grade in the fall of 2021, when themed programs at Boushall Middle and the new middle school on Hull Street Road would also be put in place.
After launching the initial two themes in the fall of 2020, the administration proposed adopting a long-term plan in the winter of 2020 that would include the specific themes and timeline for every middle and high school.
The district also wants to add specialty programs to George W. Carver Elementary, Bellevue Elementary and some South Side elementary schools, ideas not originally in the strategic plan but ones that have arisen from a contentious rezoning process that is set to conclude next month when the School Board votes on new zones.
Facing overcrowding mostly south of the James River and three rebuilt schools set to come online next fall, the School Board is also trying to diversify a system where roughly 3 in 4 schools are what researchers define as “intensely segregated,” meaning less than 10% of the student body is white.
One proposal calls for Carver and its 92% black population to be combined with Mary Munford Elementary, the whitest school in the city at 75%, according to state data. Upset with that plan, members of the Carver and Munford communities have supported turning Carver — the second-lowest achieving elementary school in the city — into a magnet school in the name of improving academics and diversity.
Kamras said the themed schools proposal — dubbed “Passion4Learning” — will help with that.
“This is how, regardless of what happens with rezoning, we will ultimately integrate the school system,” he said. “Ultimately I envision a day when families in the counties are moving into Richmond to go to our schools — not the other way around.”
The idea of open enrollment across the city is not a new one. While specific details on the process for students actually enrolling in the themed schools have not been finalized, one School Board member, Jonathan Young, has proposed a districtwide enrollment lottery.
Young’s proposal, initially shared in August, calls for families to choose up to 10 preferred elementary schools and up to six middle and six high schools. They would be randomly assigned schools after they submit their preferences.
His idea has not gained steam with other School Board members.
“Our career pathways initiative is wholly contingent on choice and open enrollment, so it’s disheartening that my colleagues have not supported my proposal to expedite what they already voted for in our strategic plan,” Young said Thursday, “but instead will miss an opportunity with rezoning to do something more than just rearrange the deck chairs.”
The School Board is scheduled to meet again Dec. 2. A second public hearing on rezoning is set for Monday at Bellevue Elementary School.
Never underestimate the power of one heartfelt gesture.
That’s the takeaway from the small auditorium Thursday morning at Huguenot High School where senior Flory Delabarrera and all of her classmates in their Advanced Placement government class were surprised with free tickets to the Dec. 7 showing of the popular musical “Hamilton,” playing now in Richmond through Dec. 8.
The surprise is tied to a letter Delabarrera wrote to Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, schools Superintendent Jason Kamras and Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni last month about her AP government teacher, Kaitlyn Siedlarczyk. In the letter, she asked for tickets for herself and some of her classmates, as well as Siedlarczyk, whom she described as a “personal mentor” and someone who goes above and beyond in “getting her 23 AP students ready for college and making an impact in the world.”
To Delabarrera’s ultimate surprise Thursday, her request was granted and then some.
Through a series of channels that started with the mayor’s office and the education secretary and ended with Dominion Energy hearing about the letter, Delabarrera not only earned those tickets for herself, her classmates and her teacher, but also dozens of other Richmond students and teachers — 118 tickets in all.
Richmond Public Schools will decide how the rest of the tickets are allocated.
Puzzled students — and an equally mystified Siedlarczyk — were taken out of class and led into the multipurpose room by Huguenot Principal Rob Gilstrap. WTVR meteorologist Nikki-Dee Ray and Dominion Energy Philanthropy Manager Cindy Balderson led the presentation and talked about Delabarrera’s letter, and initially awarded tickets just to Delabarrera and Siedlarczyk.
But after a few moments, students were told to reach under the desks at which they were sitting, and anyone who found tickets taped under their desktops would also be seeing the show. Quickly the rest of the students realized they’d all be going. The room exploded as students cheered and hugged each other and chanted “’We love you, Flory!’”
A few students cried, while others took selfies or called their parents. Delabarrera was stunned.
“At first it was a crazy idea to me — tickets are crazy expensive,” she said about writing a letter asking for tickets, and now, “we come to find out it was possible.”
She added: “I didn’t know that I could make a difference.”
In her letter, Delabarrera explained that “Hamilton” has played a big part in their class, particularly during class debates last year and this year on federalist vs. anti-federalist ideals.
“Me listening to [“Hamilton”] music made me slay that debate,” her letter reads. Further, “Hamilton, a founding father of our great nation, once again shows the significant role Virginia consistently plays in shaping America’s history and culture. “
Then: “This global phenomena effortlessly merges art and culture, as told through the use of hip hop in a fun and informative way.”
Gilstrap, Huguenot’s principal, admitted that when Delabarrera, who is the senior class president, approached him about the letter, he was skeptical it would go anywhere but allowed her to send it. Nothing happened for about a month, he said, then he got a call that free tickets were coming, not just for her and her classmates, but dozens of others throughout Richmond schools.
“The best thing about this,” he said, isn’t just that she gets to go, but “because she did this, people that don’t even know her ... their lives will be enriched by this.”