Category Archives: Government Oversight

Naming Commission is Stripping History

by Donald Smith

The week of January 16, 2023, was a big one for Virginia heritage issues in the Richmond area. Connor Williams, the chief historian for the Congressional Naming Commission (CNC) came to the American Civil War Museum to explain and defend the commission’s sweeping recommendations toward, and its disparagement of, Confederate memories on Department of Defense installations.

That week also saw the announcement that the Hunter Holmes McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Richmond would be renamed as part of a campaign to strip “racist history from military facilities,” according to a story in the military newspaper Stars and Stripes.

In the article, Sen. Mark Warner (D), a former governor of Virginia, praised the renaming. “Naming decisions should honor the patriotism of our veterans,” he said.

So, by highlighting that particular part of Warner’s statement, the Stars and Stripes apparently thinks that, in Mark Warner’s eyes, Dr. Hunter Holmes McGuire and the Virginia soldiers he treated during the Civil War were neither patriots nor veterans.

It is time for the General Assembly to act. The GA needs to convene a hearing to explore the CNC’s recommendations and let the CNC justify them. Continue reading

Leave Arlington’s Confederate Memorial Intact

Cherry trees bloom in Jackson Circle around the Confederate Monument in Section 16 of Arlington National Cemetery, April 7, 2015, in Arlington, Va. The Confederate Monument was unveiled June 4, 1914, according to the ANC website. (Arlington National Cemetery photo by Rachel Larue)

by Phil Leigh

Arlington National Cemetery’s Confederate Memorial should remain intact. Although four of the first seven cotton states arguably seceded from the union over slavery, they did not cause the Civil War. They had no purpose to overthrow the federal government. After forming the seven state Confederacy in February 1861, they promptly sent commissioners to Washington to “preserve the most friendly relations” with the truncated Union. Instead of letting the cotton states depart in peace, the North’s resolve to force them back into the Union caused the war.

With half of the military-aged white men of the eventual 11-state Confederacy, the four states of Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas only joined the original seven after President Lincoln called upon them to provide volunteers to force the first seven back into the Union. In response to a telegram from Lincoln’s Secretary of War Edwin Stanton directing that Virginia provide her quota of such volunteers, Governor John Letcher replied that his state would not comply and concluded: “You have chosen to inaugurate Civil War….”

On the eve of the war, Northerners and Southerners differed on their relative loyalties to the federal and state governments. According to historians Edward Channing and Eva Moore, Northerners had

the general opinion that the Union was sovereign, and the states were part of it…. The idea that the people of the United States formed one nation had been reinforced by the coming of immigrants from abroad. These people had no conception of a ‘state’ or a sentimental attachment to a ‘state.’ They had come to America to better their condition….

By mostly settling in the North, they reinforced the Northerners’ belief that they owed their loyalty to the Union first and only secondarily to the state. Continue reading

Part II: School Discipline, Virginia Data and Virginia’s Disproportionality Concerns

This is the second of a three-part series on school discipline. The authors present information and provide discussion questions for the audience to respond. We hope the discussion will further an understanding of the complexity of school discipline and safe and orderly schools within the context of the presented data.

by Matthew Hurt and Kathleen Smith

Findings from Virginia Data

Data on school discipline are abundant, but not always reliable. The reasons are many. Overall, data are reported by infraction to the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) and to the Office of Civil Rights by each school division. One kind of infraction in one school division may be deemed another kind of infraction by another division. For example, using a curse word while talking to a teacher could be considered disrespect or a threat, depending on who is entering the data in the system. Although the VDOE has attempted to clarify the language over time, it still may not be reliable. For this reason, the data used herein refer to only a few data points of what is reported to the Office of Civil Rights by divisions for each school every two years in 2015-2016 and 2017-2018. This data can be found here. Some data are highlighted below.

Congruency Matters in Learning and Discipline Data

Congruency means that percent of total of a discipline indicator should be similar or equal to the enrollment percent of total. In other words, in 2017-2018, if 22 percent of students are Black, then 22 percent of Black students should have been suspended. In 2017-2018, 51 percent of the total number of suspensions were of Black students. This means that the Black population’s results are not congruent to the actual percent of the Black students in the total population. Continue reading

School Discipline, Part I: Framing School Discipline and National Data

by Matthew Hurt and Kathleen Smith

This is the first of a three-part series on school discipline. The authors present the information and then provide discussion questions. We hope the discussion will further an understanding of the complexity of school discipline and safe and orderly schools. Part I of this series frames school discipline and provides the latest national data from the Office of Civil Rights. Part II dives into Virginia data regarding suspensions, expulsions, and school arrests and context for Virginia’s disproportionality concerns. Part III discusses how discipline has been “reframed” in recent years.

School discipline is not a simple problem. There are some aspects that educators have a great deal of power to address and other aspects that are outside their ability to influence. Recent events have also likely caused school discipline to become more complex and difficult to address.

From an Administrator’s Experience

When Dr. Matthew Hurt was an assistant principal in a K-8 school 20 years ago, discipline was among his main duties. By working with teachers, students, parents, and staff, disciplinary infractions declined each year.

He learned early-on that suspending students was like throwing Brer Rabbit into the briar patch. The practice gave students a vacation where likely no one was there to help them catch up on their work. As it provided no disincentive to stop negative behaviors, the administration focused on in-school suspension. Staff found this was a significantly better deterrent. With in-school suspensions (ISS), the school employed an individual who worked with the kids to make sure any missed instruction was mitigated. For smaller infractions, students would be assigned to ISS during their lunch and exploratory classes (PE, music, etc.) so they wouldn’t miss any core instruction. Kids hated missing the social time with their peers, and this provided great incentive to improve their behavior.

The second lesson Dr. Hurt learned is that the administration had to support teachers with discipline. Teachers realized that what they did in their classrooms was prized, and that they were supported for not tolerating any shenanigans while teaching. Their instructional time was extremely precious. The administration supported the in-class disciplinary measures that teachers implemented and told them to send kids to the office as soon as their behavior became untenable. Students realized quickly that once their teacher sent them out of the classroom, consequences were quickly and progressively meted out.

Like every other school, this school enrolled students who frequently needed discipline, and a lot of time was spent with those students. The administration’s philosophy was that if a student was misbehaving, there were usually factors that must be taken into consideration. Disciplinary consequences were consistent regardless of those factors, but they realized there may be some mitigating interventions that could be applied to improve future behaviors. Many of these students lived in chaotic and sometimes violent homes. Staff realized that they had to double their efforts to ensure that these students had stability during the school day and realized that teachers and administrators were there to support their efforts to be successful at school. The administration spent a lot of time working with parents to find out their perspective about their kid’s behavior. They also worked with outside agencies to better coordinate necessary services. The more successful school staff were at identifying student social/emotional needs and mitigating those, the more successful they were at mitigating their negative behaviors.
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The Box and the Snowball

by Joe Fitzgerald

There’s a box, and there’s a snowball.

The box is the support of the Bluestone Town Center. It is a well-constructed but beautifully decorated box, built on strong buzzwords. Affordable Housing, and Climate Change, and Dense Development are the shiny wrapping on this gift. The snowball of opposition rolling toward City Hall grows each time a post on social media begins, “I didn’t realize ….” Didn’t realize how big it is, how much traffic, how much impact on the schools, how far from the center of town it is.

The box is being built purposefully. Proponents on the Planning Commission and City Council who have not yet heard the presentation of pros and cons are publicly and privately adding items to the box. Their box is a container for their support of the project, and they will only add those things that bolster their case.

The snowball is built on surprise. With local journalism struggling, people find out in bits and pieces how large the thing is, how many cars and students it will add, how badly proponents have considered flooding, runoff, and blasting.

The box includes support that’s at best half-hearted from city staff. The recommendation from the Community Development staff reads less like approval and more like, “Well, we guess it’s OK.” The City Attorney outlines why the offers to mitigate school impact are illegal under current law and an administrative nightmare if the city changes the law to accommodate them.

The Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority (HRHA) and the tax specialists will open their box at the Planning Commission meeting Tuesday, where they will explain how this is the greatest thing since the golf course. The snowball of citizens will attempt to deliver death by a thousand cuts. They don’t have the staff, they don’t have the legal help, and they don’t have elected and appointed officials who’ve already made up their minds. They only have the spirit of those who have throughout our history stood up and told their government it’s wrong.

Opponents have already been described in whispers as NIMBYs, or “not in my back yard.” I live two miles away, so it’s hardly in my back yard. But what if it were? Rezoning requests like this one are required to inform neighbors. The whole idea of zoning is to regulate what is built next to what. Homeowners’ defense of their surroundings should not be subordinate to what a planning commission or HRHA chair thinks is best for them and their neighbors.

As this proposal goes forward, I hope elected and appointed officials will remember that they serve the entire city and not just the preferences of a vocal political minority. For the people we elect and the people they appoint, the whole city is supposed to be their back yard.

Joe Fitzgerald is a former mayor of Harrisonburg. This column is republished with permission from his blog, Still Not Sleeping.

The Big Christmas Chill Was a Wakeup Call

by Bill O’Keefe

As temperatures dropped dramatically over the Christmas weekend, Dominion Energy’s advice to its customers — those who still had power — was to turn down their thermostats. Virginia was not alone. PJM, the regional grid management organization covering 13 states and the District of Columbia, made the same request because its gas plants couldn’t get enough fuel to meet the demand for home heating.

According to The Wall Street Journal, rolling blackouts were averted because PJM ordered some businesses to curtail power while switching some generators to oil. The large regions served by both the Tennessee Valley Authority and Duke Energy experienced rolling blackouts. And for the second year in a row, Texas faced a grid problem as wind power plunged and demand doubled.

The Wall Street Journal also noted that, “While there wasn’t a single cause for the power shortages, government policies to boost renewable energy snowballed and created problems that cascaded through the grid. There have been warnings about grid vulnerability for years but this Christmas proves that these warnings have not been taken seriously. The climate lobby blames climate change and greedy energy companies for this year’s problems but there have been colder Christmases — 1980 and 1983 for example. And, there have been colder Decembers that were survived without a grid breakdown or near breakdown.

The problems faced by utilities should be a warning and a reason for reassessment. Will Dominion heed that warning or will it continue on its present course? How will it prevent more serious problems as the demand for electrical power continues to increase and electric heat pumps are promoted and subsidized as responsible replacements for gas- and oil-fired furnaces?

That Dominion had to urge its customers to turn down their thermostats indicates that it did not have sufficient surge capacity to meet the demand caused by low temperatures. We need to know why. It could be the result of the 2019 decision to shutter all of its coal-fired capacity as part of its Net-Zero 2050 commitment and the General Assembly mandate to do so by 2024.
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RVA 5×5 – New Year’s Nuggets

by Jon Baliles

Left In The Cold

The Richmond Free Press Editorial Page ends the year batting 1.000 and goes two for two this week. The main editorial covers the disgraceful lack of attention, urgency and concern by the mayor and the administration for those in need of shelter during last week’s arctic blast. It opens with two sentences any “leader” should be ashamed of:

“Here’s the good news: So far, there have been no reports of unsheltered people freezing to death in the arctic blast that hit the Richmond area just before Christmas. With private and city-supported shelters full, people were left in the cold.”

It goes through the debacle over the past few months (you can read more here and here) and questions why zoning and special use permits were held out among the excuses as to why shelters in certain parts of town were unable to open. I recall a time not too distant when the mayor used “emergency powers” for numerous other issues during the pandemic; I guess emergency shelter for the homeless in 10-degree weather does not qualify.

The editorial also notes that the Council approved a special use permit two years ago for a shelter by a different operator in the same spot on Chamberlayne Avenue in Northside, but this year they are still waiting to get through the red tape.

“It would seem simple enough to create a legal fig leaf that would have allowed CCC (Commonwealth Catholic Charities) to fully open. No, it was more important that CCC gain its own permission slip, even if that took forever and left desperate people in the cold.”

And then, the brilliant denouement:

“Mayor Stoney has lectured everyone about how this city’s goal is to create One Richmond and equity for all. Apparently, you had to read the fine print on his messaging: Legal niceties are more important than people. Alas.”

Jon Baliles is a former Richmond City Councilman. This column was published originally in his blog RVA 5×5 and is republished here with permission.

Public Education and the Management of Change

Freedom High Woodbridge

by James C. Sherlock

Peter Drucker’s famous five questions should always be asked by and of government.

What is the mission? Who is the customer? What does the customer consider valuable? What are the results sought and how are they to be measured? What is the plan, to include both abandonment and innovation?

So, in reviewing the 119-page JLARC report Pandemic Impact on Public K–12 Education 2022, we must inquire first what JLARC was asked to do by the General Assembly.

Then examine what they did with that charter.

Both were well intentioned but incomplete. Continue reading

RVA 5X5: A Five-Part Series of Stories

by Jon Baliles

STORY #1 — The Pot Overfloweth

There have been a lot of stories this week about the $21 million surplus announced by Mayor Levar Stoney and what he is asking City Council to endorse and how to disburse it in a budget amendment vote scheduled for a Monday evening vote. “The growth of the real estate market has caused the taxable real property revenue to exceed the budgeted amount,” the mayor wrote in a letter to Council.

Dean Mirshahi at WRIC reports that out of the $17 million, $5 million would be used to improve pay scales for first responders and $3.1 million for inclement weather shelters — two things that are definitely needed and long overdue.

There is an allocation of $1,750,000 to the Department of Economic Development for “contractual increases” involving Richmond’s Diamond District and City Center projects. No one knows what this means, but the Diamond District developer made it clear to VPM News that they were not recipients of any of that allocation (so put away the conspiracy theories). Maybe an explanation is forthcoming Monday night (or maybe not).

Some of the other funding includes $1.1 million for traffic calming projects; $1 million each for the nonprofits HumanKind and Homeward to provide family crisis services and homeless services; $500,000 to NextUP RVA, a free program for Richmond Public Schools middle school students; $2 million would go to a reserve fund to help offset rising health care costs for city employees; about $450,000 for employees assisting with added translation and interpretation services; and $400,000 for the YMCA’s Help1RVA helpline for people in crisis or considering suicide.

The biggest item is $5 million for first responders, which includes $2.6 million for the Richmond Police Department, $1.9 million for the Richmond Fire Department, and $559,000 for the Department of Emergency Communications for pay adjustments that the city says were not accounted for in the pay raises approved last May.

VPM noted that “a press release from the mayor’s office said those pay adjustments would be for employees not accounted for in a $17 million increase in first-responder wages in May’s budget.” Continue reading

Grand Jury Report on Loudoun Schools Raises Threat Assessment Issue – Again

Stone Bridge High School Chantilly

by James C. Sherlock

Update Dec. 7 at 7:33:  LCPS Superintendent Scott Ziegler was fired yesterday by the school board.  That does not begin to resolve the issue of threat assessment.

The University of Virginia Threat Assessment Team (TAT), with knowledge of a threat, failed to intervene before tragedy in the case of the student who is alleged to have killed three and wounded two other students on that bus a few weeks ago.

The only disagreements are whether the failure was a state policy mistake, state oversight mistake, a systemic mistake at the University of Virginia, a mistake of the persons on the TAT or some combination.

Now we have a grand jury report on another pair of incidents that question the effectiveness of threat assessment and mitigation in our public K-12 schools.

As with the colleges and universities, we have state laws and model policies in place for K-12 schools. As with the institutions of higher learning, there is no state oversight to ensure compliance.

So, as at UVa, in practice the TAT process failed — or from the evidence so far wasn’t even employed — in two different Loudoun County high schools when there was ample warning to officials of both schools that a student was an imminent threat.

He proved to be a rapist — twice.

Laws and policies without either oversight or consequences for those who fail to execute them provide false comfort with tragic consequences that are seemingly endless here. Continue reading

Great Investigative Reporting of a Heartbreaking Story

Courtesy Asra Investigates

by James C. Sherlock

For a story that will simultaneously make you angry and break your heart, read Fathering While Black, by Asra Nomani and Debra Tisler.

It is the story of a guardian ad litem (GAL), Karen Keys-Gamarra, who is reported here to have systematically abused her position to pursue a Black father and his parents for the crime of loving and caring for his daughter while male.

The child’s mother was a junkie who exposed her baby to cocaine. The father is a gainfully employed paramedic in Stafford County with a clean record and clean drug tests. His own mother is a registered nurse and his father a retiree.

The GAL got an order from an Arlington J&D judge to take the child from the home of her father and grandparents last night.

The authors have practiced world-class investigative journalism in describing the case and the system — Arlington J&D judge, GAL and Child Protective Services — that worked together to seize the little girl. And put a gag order on her father and his parents.

If ethics violations were a crime, based on this reporting this case would be a Class 1 felony.

Now nobody in the system will comment.

Ms. Nomani and Ms. Tisler comment for them.  Thoroughly and compellingly.

Suggestions to Ease Virginia’s Housing Crisis without Additional State Money

Courtesy californiahumandevelopment.org

by James C. Sherlock

The Richmond Times-Dispatch, on cue, wrote in an editorial the other day that more state money was needed to fund local housing.

Maybe.

But that is not the first place to look.

The governor wants to condition development aid to local communities on their reforming land-use policies to permit more construction.

I have a few ideas along that line.

Proffers, also known as conditional zoning, are a recognition that real estate developments have impacts on other properties and on services provided by the local jurisdiction. Fair enough.

The money for roads, sewers and schools has to come from somewhere. Proffers make the developers and their customers pay for a share of capital improvements deemed necessary by city/county planners.

Wielded unpredictably, and sometimes unethically, they are also part of the problem. See the excellent article Politics and Proffers by Matt Ahern for the games played with proffers and their cost to the housing economy.

Then there is low-cost housing.

The Commonwealth by law permits but does not require localities to waive fees for low-cost housing. That law, originally and curiously restricted to only non-profit developers, was updated in 2019 to permit the same waivers to for-profit builders.

Send state housing funds only to jurisdictions that do so. Require in law a limit to the costs of proffers for low-cost housing.

Finally, tax Virginia’s astonishingly profitable non-profit hospitals to help them with their mission of caring for the disadvantaged — in this case in low-cost housing. Continue reading

Profoundly Unethical: UVa Children’s Hospital Hides Child Gender Transition Information from Public Scrutiny

UVa Children’s Hospital courtesy UVa

by James C. Sherlock

I published a series of articles earlier this year that criticized the University of Virginia Children’s Hospital on its approach to gender transition in minors as young as 11.

As a result, the hospital made at least some movement towards change by announcing it was assigning pediatric clinical psychologists to join that program, previously dominated by endocrinologists.

I saw that move as an indication that the minors who came to the clinic would be treated first for anxiety, depression and ongoing emotional issues before being considered for insertion into the hormone-to-surgery pipeline.

That now may be the case, though there is no case flow diagram published. But nothing else has apparently changed except for the elimination of the public information on which I based my criticisms.

There is growing concern among many doctors and other healthcare professionals as to whether medical transition is the best way to proceed for those under aged 18. I have written extensively that several countries have pulled back from medical treatment and instead are emphasizing psychotherapy first.

UVa Children’s is a state hospital. Hiding information from the public to avoid scrutiny cannot be an option.

I call on the Board of Visitors to direct the hospital to improve transparency in the UVa Children’s Hospital web presentations on gender transitions in minors.

Without this, the hospital is guilty of misleading the public.  The removal of previously-available public information shows they are doing this on purpose. Continue reading

Virginia Should Enforce Threat Assessment Laws. Noting Lack of Compliance Not Enough.


by James C. Sherlock

I have written about the Threat Assessment Teams (TAT’s) of two state universities, the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech.

I assessed Tech to be compliant with state law. I reported that UVa is not. That of course raises the issue of the rest of Virginia’s colleges and universities.

The Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS) in 2014, with far more resources and access than I, found the state of the TAT’s serving the commonwealth’s fifteen four-year state institutions of higher learning (IHL), its community colleges and private IHLs to be as a group a hot mess (my term).

I will follow this article with an assessment of the compliance of the current policies of Virginia’s fifteen public IHLs.

The 2014 report did not have the intended effect of standardization and professionalization of threat assessment and intervention in Virginia. Preliminary reviews of the policies of each IHL show them still to be all over the map in terms of compliance.

I am reasonably sure that if DCJS redid its survey tomorrow, it would result in similar findings and recommendations. Perhaps at this point the government should actually enforce the law rather than just reporting on the lack of compliance.

One wishes that had occurred years earlier. Continue reading

SCC’s Jagdmann Resigns, Leaves December 31

SCC Commissioner Judith Jagdmann

by Steve Haner

The (Very) Honorable Judith Jagdmann has resigned from Virginia’s State Corporation Commission, effective at the end of the year. The 2023 General Assembly now has two seats to fill on that crucial body, having failed through all of 2022 to fill an existing vacancy on the three-judge panel.

Jagdmann, who joined the court in 2006, announced her decision in a letter to the General Assembly leadership. Her current term is not over, and she is years away from any mandatory retirement based on age.

Before joining the court, she served as Attorney General of Virginia for one year after Jerry Kilgore stepped aside to run for governor in 2005. She joined the Office of Attorney General as the Deputy Attorney General for the Civil Division in January of 1998 (the same time this author was also appointed to a post there by former Attorney General Mark Earley).

The SCC is an often under-appreciated regulatory body that is both an administrative agency and a court of record. It usually gets attention for decisions dealing with utility regulation and infrastructure location, but its oversight reaches from corporate registrations and governance to the investment and insurance and telecommunications industries. Continue reading