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Amy Lee

For-profit colleges under scrutiny as students default on loans

By Amy Lee, Capital News Service

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently rolled back several Obama-era initiatives that would increase protections for student loan borrowers and curtail loan servicer misconduct.

The initiatives were the result of three memos issued by the Obama administration to reform debt repayment. They involved creating a single platform system for loan repayment and banning collection fees for defaulted borrowers.

DeVos rescinded the memos on April 11, explaining that the reform process “has been subjected to a myriad of moving deadlines, changing requirements and a lack of consistent objectives.”

In response, 22 state attorneys general wrote a letter to DeVos criticizing her withdrawal of the memos and calling for the Education Department to reconsider the impact on student borrowers.

“Too many students across the country graduate college saddled with thousands of dollars in student loan debt and fall victim to gross misconduct by loan servicers,” Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring said in a press release. “These critical reforms had been put into place to protect our students and their families, and it’s downright irresponsible for the Education Department to roll them back.”

 

College loan debt and default rates have become a focus in education policymaking as student loans have eclipsed auto loans and credit cards as the largest form of consumer debt after mortgages. Americans now owe more than $1.4 trillion in loans for their education, and for-profit colleges are under scrutiny for their role for the financial burden.

Low graduation rates, high loan default rates

Enrollment at for-profit institutions of higher education tripled from 766,000 in 2001 to 2.4 million in 2010. Yet only 27 percent of students nationally graduate within six years from for-profit institutions, while the graduation rate for public and private nonprofit schools is more than 50 percent. From Virginia for-profits, the University of Phoenix-Virginia and Stratford University report the lowest graduation rates of 12 percent.

According to Kevin Fudge, director of consumer advocacy at American Student Assistance, students who enroll in school but fail to receive a degree are the most susceptible to defaulting on student loans. Students from for-profit colleges make up 35 percent about student loan defaults.

For-profit schools’ low graduation rates and high loan default rates have not gone unnoticed by the Education Department. Enrollment at for-profit institutions has declined in most recent years because of an improved economy with more young adults heading straight to the workforce, but also due to regulatory and financial pressures while Barack Obama was president.

ITT Technical Institute shut down last September, stranding more than 40,000 students with lost semesters of transferable credits and student loans to pay. The for-profit college closed after state and federal departments investigated the school’s recruitment practices, high student loan default rates and contested job placement rates. Eventually the Education Department banned students from using federal financial aid at ITT Tech branches, leading ITT to declare bankruptcy.

Like other for-profit institutions, ITT relied on federal financial aid from the Education Department and military and veterans’ benefits for at least 70 percent of the school’s revenue. For-profits are legally prohibited from receiving more than 90 percent of total revenue from federal aid, but this “90/10” rule does not include veterans’ benefits in its calculations.

Data produced by the Education Department together with the Defense Department and Department of Veterans Affairs showed that about 200 for-profits were almost entirely supported by the federal government when military and veterans’ benefits are added into the total revenue.

In Richmond, Chester Career College was fined $5 million in a class-action settlement filed by former students in 2013. The lawsuit accused Chester Career College of targeting minorities in an enrollment scheme to reap from federal student loan programs, and failing to provide students with an adequate education.

Proprietary schools provide ‘a motherly sort of experience’

Proprietary schools tend to cater to non-traditional college students: people from low-income families, underrepresented minorities, single mothers and veterans. The reason why for-profit schools such as South or Stratford University are able to attract these demographics is because of their accessibility, says Tressie McMillan Cottom, an assistant sociology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of “Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy.”

“It was interesting how little paperwork there is – almost none, and certainly nowhere near the sheer volume we produce on the traditional side,” said Cottom, who researched the enrollment process at nine for-profit schools.

“Much of the admissions process was shaped by women who were heavily concentrated in these jobs as enrollment officers, so there was almost a motherly sort of experience at times. When you experience the for-profit college process on the ground, it doesn’t feel very corporate at all.”

Educational institutions are well aware that non-traditional students benefit from greater support throughout the application process.

“What for-profit colleges do is not innovative, actually,” Cottom said, adding that traditional colleges simply don’t have the funds to spend money on people before they enroll as students. Nevertheless, small touches such as having a person, rather than a voice prompt, answer the phone and conducting application workshops could give traditional higher education institutions the approachability that non-traditional students seek in their learning.

For-profit sector may rebound under Trump

Still, the for-profit school sector is not so easily replaced. Even as for-profit college enrollments have slipped from their peak in 2010, community colleges have also experienced a drop in students. Rather than choosing traditional higher education over for-profit schools, potential students are skipping school altogether.

While negative publicity and tightening federal regulations have dampened the for-profit enrollment and revenue numbers, the market sector has found optimism in President Trump.

Under the Obama administration, the Education Department policed predatory practices by for-profit colleges including false advertising and substandard educational guidelines. ITT Technical Institute and Corinthian Colleges both collapsed under legal challenges during the Obama era as well.

In the same month he was elected president, Trump settled three lawsuits – one stemming from the New York attorney general’s office – against his for-profit education company, Trump University.

DeVos, Trump’s appointee for secretary of education, has championed competition within the educational sphere and holds investments in for-profit education corporations. Since Election Day, DeVry University, a leader in the for-profit sector, has recorded a steady rise of 52 percent in stock price, and other large for-profit educational organizations like Grand Canyon Education and Strayer have reported equally strong increases of 37 percent and 55 percent, respectively.

In Virginia, Trump has asked Liberty University President Jerry L. Falwell Jr. to head an education task force meant to pare down “overreaching regulation.” While categorized as a private nonprofit, Liberty University operates an online division of the university that has experienced explosive growth in enrollment and revenue starting in 2006, rivaling for-profit colleges as a competitive business model. Liberty University also received an estimated $775 million in federal financial aid as student loans and grants in 2011 – the highest amount received in Virginia, according to data from the Education Department.

Everyone got an A because the teacher didn’t show

For-profit institutions are not a new fixture in Virginia’s academic landscape, but neither are issues surrounding the credibility and educational responsibility of these proprietary schools. In 2011, a group of students filed a class action complaint against the Richmond School of Health and Technology seeking damages as victims of a “deceptive and dishonest scheme.”

“In my computer class, the teacher did not show up for the final exam. After sitting in the classroom for nearly two hours, an instructor from another program came in and informed us that we would all receive A’s since the teacher was absent. We never took the exam for that class,” student plaintiff Melissa Blaney testified in her declaration.

“Many employers do not want to hire RSHT graduates because they know that RSHT does such a poor job of educating and training its students,” wrote another student plaintiff. “This bad reputation, combined with my lack of experience in the field, has prevented me from getting a job despite having passed the certification exam.”

Virginia has enacted consumer protections for former students of for-profit colleges that have closed.

After Corinthian Colleges Inc. declared bankruptcy, Attorney General Herring announced that Virginians enrolled at the company’s schools were eligible for loan forgiveness.

Not all for-profit colleges meet a messy legal demise, though the slew of alarming news stories and sly marketing tactics can confuse the prospective students looking to earn new certifications and skills.

In her examination of the predatory nature of certain for-profit colleges, Cottom found that some specialty schools provide value – notably programs that are community focused, much in the way hair cutting or truck driving schools operate to train workers without the flashy advertisements or branding.

She advises students thinking about enrolling at a for-profit college to ask questions that can differentiate between the principled and the predatory.

 “I would ask them whether or not the credit hours you might earn there would transfer to a different university,” Cottom said. “Underneath that question when you’re asking, ‘Hey, are my credit hours going to transfer?’ what you’re asking is, ‘Do other colleges and universities value the classes I have taken here?’ And that’s a good proxy for whether or not people in the broader society and community will value your degree.”

State budget targets localities in fiscal distress

By Amy Lee, Capital News Service

RICHMOND –While a study for local government finances was canned this past legislative session, the new state budget has revived the focus on fiscal stress in Virginia cities and counties.

Motivated by the city of Petersburg’s financial crisis, Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta County, filed a bill to study the fiscal stress of local governments during the 2017 session. SJ 278 proposed the creation of a joint subcommittee to review local and state tax systems, as well as reforms to promote economic assistance and cooperation between regions.

Ultimately, the bill was rejected in the House Finance Committee as members deferred consideration of tax reform for next year’s longer session.

However, the state budget adopted this February has already begun to enact two fiscal stress preventive measures originally introduced in Hanger’s bill.

“Currently, there is no statutory authority for the Commission on Local Government to intervene in a fiscally stressed locality, and the state does not currently have any authority to assist a locality financially,” said Sen. Rosalyn Dance, D- Petersburg, who co-sponsored the fiscal stress bill.

To escalate state intervention, the budget has set guidelines for state officials to identify and help alleviate signs of financial stress to prevent a more severe crisis. A workgroup established by the auditor of public accounts will determine an early warning system for identifying fiscal stress. The system would consider such criteria as a local government’s expenditure reports and budget information.

Local governments that demonstrate fiscal distress will be notified and may request a comprehensive review of their finances by the state. After review, the state is expected to draft an ‘action plan’ detailing purpose, duration, and the anticipated resources required for the intervention. The governor also has the option to channel up to $500,000 from the general fund toward relief efforts for the local government in need.

The new state budget also called for the creation of a Joint Subcommittee on Local Government Fiscal Stress, with members drawn from the Senate Finance Committee and the House Appropriations and House Finance committees. The subcommittee will study local and state financial practices such as regional cooperation and service consolidation, taxing authority, local responsibilities in state programs, and root causes of fiscal stress.

“It is important to have someone who can speak to first-hand experience dealing with issues of local government fiscal stress,” said Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, a member of the Appropriations Committee. “This insight will be essential in forming effective solutions that will be sustainable long-term.”

While all states hold limited authority to intervene in struggling localities, the level of involvement they actually play in fiscally stressed communities varies greatly. For Virginia, the new budget aims to widen the commonwealth’s powers to intervene, as well as more effectively spot fiscal red flags in an area.

“Prior to now, Virginia had no mechanism to track, measure, or address fiscal stress in localities,” Aird said. “Petersburg’s situation is not unique, and it is encouraging that proactive measures are now being taken to guard against future issues. This is essential to ensuring that Virginia’s economy remains strong and that all communities can share in our commonwealth’s success.”

Print may die but journalism won’t, veteran columnist says

By Amy Lee, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Print journalism will eventually end, says former Washington Post columnist Bob Levey, but the close of the print era hardly means the death of journalism.

Levey, a visiting journalism professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, delivered a lecture Thursday on “the future of the media,” examining journalism in the digital age – and in the era of President Trump.

For Levey, sustaining responsible journalism requires overhauling the business models and content systems that guide the news industry today. As newspaper advertising has fled online to Craigslist, Facebook, Yahoo and Google, publishers have all but lost their ability to charge for news.

“If journalism is going to survive in its best form – authoritative, accurate, fair, unbiased and on the ball in terms of timing – the business problem is going to have to be solved or dealt with,” said Levey, who has been a working journalist for nearly 50 years, including 36 as a reporter and columnist at The Washington Post.

He compared The Post’s acquisition by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos with The New York Time’s public ownership and resulting pressure of “being beholden to Wall Street.” Journalism requires revenue to thrive, and Levey discussed philanthropy and government funding as emerging channels of financial support for news sites.

Revamping media content for today’s audiences may be a more complicated task. Levey described a modern breed of readers who use news as a way to confirm, rather than challenge, their knowledge. This trend, Levey said, will only fragment audiences, promote intolerance and discourage fresh news sources and journalists in the field.

“We no longer trust news sources to open our eyes to things we don’t know, and we don’t seek them to provide things that we don’t know,” Levey said, speaking to several hundred people gathered in the VCU Commons Theater and watching the lecture online.

“We are going home. We are going to a stripe and a political orientation that we know, that we expect and that we trust.”

Equally troubling to the landscape of journalism is the popularity of online platforms that seek to cement an identity somewhere between legitimate news and pop-culture listicles.

Case in point: BuzzFeed and its decision to publish private information regarding then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s personal life. Levey criticized online news outlet for presenting the information to readers without a filter of journalistic standards. Responsible journalism involving editing, and a brand of accuracy will always exist, he said, but it must increasingly compete with content that shies away from editorial involvement and responsibility.

Toward the end of his lecture, Levey outlined his predictions for the future of journalism and received questions from the audience. Newspapers will eventually halt circulation, Levey said, and television and radio news will continue to decline each year.

As for the internet, Levey predicts Facebook will rise as a dominant publisher of journalism in a time as media outlets are sucked into larger enterprises, much in the way of The Washington Post and Amazon.

After fielding questions about censorship, commoditization of content and journalism ethics, Levey summarized his thoughts regarding journalism’s future as the lecture drew to a close.

“Journalism depends on patience, time and editing,” he said. “My money’s on journalism. We always find a way.”

State won’t study ‘fiscal stress’ of local governments

By Amy Lee, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A bill ordering a study of the “fiscal stress” of local governments was halted in the House Rules Committee this week.

More than 53 percent of counties and cities in Virginia have reported above-average or high fiscal stress, according to a report by the Commission on Local Government. Petersburg, a city grappling with a severe financial crisis, placed third on the state fiscal stress index behind the cities of Emporia and Buena Vista.

“Petersburg does have some financial challenges, but they’re actually not unique. There are a lot of counties and localities within the commonwealth right now that are facing similar fiscal distressers,” said Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg.

The top priority for this session, according to Aird, is identifying “what we as a commonwealth need to do to put protections into place and allow localities to have tools and resources to prevent this type of challenge from occurring into the future.”

Under SJ 278, a 15-member joint subcommittee would have reviewed local government and state tax systems, local responsibilities for delivery of state programs and causes of fiscal stress among local governments. In addition, the study would craft financial incentives and reforms to promote increased cooperation among Virginia’s regions.

“I believe that this legislation will help address fiscal issues that localities are experiencing,” said Sen. Rosalyn Dance, D-Petersburg, who co-sponsored the legislation. “Currently, there is no statutory authority for the Commission on Local Government to intervene in a fiscally stressed locality, and the state does not currently have any authority to assist a locality financially.”

In the case of Petersburg, the city received technical assistance from state officials, including cataloging liabilities and obligations, researching problems and reviewing city funds. However, state intervention could have occurred only if Petersburg invited it, because current law forbids the commonwealth from imposing reactive measures in a struggling locality.

SJ 278 was sponsored by Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta County, who co-chairs the Senate Finance Committee. Earlier in the session, the committee killed seven bills relating to state and local tax policy reform. Hanger agreed to reconsider the rejected tax reforms as part of the proposed study mandated by SJ 278.

Hanger’s resolution passed in the Senate but was left in the House Rules Committee. Del. Lee Ware, R-Powhatan, cited the upcoming elections this year of House members and governor as a roadblock for the bill. Moreover, the 2018 legislative session will last 60 days, compared with just 45 days during the current session.

“Regarding tax reform proposals, they are interesting to consider in a short session but unlikely,” said Ware, who chairs the House Finance Committee. He told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that he is drafting a broad tax reform proposal for next year’s session.

For Third year, governor vetoes ‘Tebow bill’

By Amy Lee, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Monday vetoed the so-called Tebow bill that would have allowed home-schooled students to participate in high school sports.

“Participation in athletic and academic competitions is a privilege for students who satisfy eligibility requirements,” McAuliffe wrote in vetoing HB 1578, sponsored by Del. Rob Bell, R-Charlottesville. “Opening participation in those competitions to individuals who are not required to satisfy the same criteria codifies academic inequality in interscholastic competition.”

This is the third consecutive year that Bell has shepherded such legislation through the General Assembly only to be stopped at the governor’s office.

The bill was nicknamed after former NFL quarterback Tim Tebow, who played football for a Florida high school while being home-schooled. The bill would have allowed high schools to join only interscholastic programs that welcomed home-schooled student athletes. If the bill had been enacted, the Virginia High School League would have had to implement policy changes to include home-schoolers alongside their public-school counterparts.

HB 1578 had passed the House 60-38 and the Senate 22-18. Earlier in the session, McAuliffe had announced his intention to veto the legislation. The governor has consistently joined opponents of the bill in saying that home-schooled students are not be held to the same academic expectations set for public school student athletes.

Bell’s latest bill had sought to address that concern. It said home-schoolers would have to pass standardized tests and demonstrate “evidence of progress” in their academic curriculum for two years before qualifying to play in a local high school’s sports team. They would also be expected to meet the same immunization standards set by public schools.

In addition, under HB 1578, each school district would have had the right to decide whether home-school students would be welcome in its high school sports programs. This measure was meant to accommodate schools critical of the change. But opponents like Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, said it would only complicate the system even more.

“The bottom line is, once Virginia High School League changes its policy, every school division is going to have to match up with it, because nobody is going to want to compete with half a loaf,” Petersen said. “I’ve got some coaches in the audience that are here for state-winning championship teams, and I know what they would say, not on the merits of the bill, but simply that everyone has to play by the same set of rules.”

As a result of McAuliffe’s veto, the bill heads back to the General Assembly. It will require a two-thirds majority vote from both the House and Senate to override the veto.

Bell has pushed similar legislation since 2005 and says his efforts are to make sure children who thrive in home-schooling environments are not punished for it.

“If you are a parent and your kid doesn’t fit into the public-school curriculum right now, you can go private or you can go home-schooling, except many places, including a county I represent, have very limited private school options,” Bell said. “Yet we’re forcing parents to say, ‘You can have football, or you can have the education that you want.’”

Assembly passes bill to allow sale of 151-proof liquor

By Amy Lee, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The General Assembly has given final approval to a bill that would allow the sale of 151-proof liquor in Virginia – a choice available in almost all other states, but one some fear could increase binge drinking and other problems on college campuses.

“I am glad to see Virginia join the ranks of 48 other states that have legalized clear, 151-proof alcohol. The law banning the legislation is a law left over from the days of Prohibition,” said Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, who sponsored the bill.

Under HB 1842, state-controlled liquor stores will be able to sell neutral grain spirits up to 151 proof (75.5 percent alcohol), an increase from the previous limit of 101 proof (50.5 percent alcohol).

Knight sponsored similar legislation in 2016, but it was vetoed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who echoed the concerns of university officials about 151-proof liquor. “A prime market for these products is young people who are attracted to their high proof and low cost,” McAuliffe wrote in his veto message last spring.

A McAuliffe spokesman said the governor has not taken a stand on HB 1842.

This year’s bill passed with a bipartisan vote of 36-4 in the Senate on Tuesday. Last month, the House approved the measure, 83-14.

To assuage concerns from organizations such as the Virginia College Alcohol Leadership Council, Knight cooperated with Brian Moran, secretary of public safety and homeland security, to include a five-year sunset clause in HB 1842. The legality of 151-proof grain alcohol would expire on July 1, 2022, and lawmakers then would decide whether to renew the law.

In addition, under the bill, the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control could choose not to sell 151-proof alcohol products near college campuses.

Some university officials have expressed concerns about highly potent liquor. University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan has likened it to a “date rape” drug because of the correlation between alcohol consumption and sexual assault.

A popular 151-proof liquor is Everclear, which also comes in a 190-proof variety. It is made by Luxco, a clear liquor producer based in St. Louis. Vectre Corp., a lobbying firm in Richmond, represents Luxco.

Vectre officials said 151-proof clear alcohols were used mostly for culinary purposes rather than for straight consumption. An Everclear study conducted in 2015 found that 64 percent of product purchases were made by consumers over age 31.

Virginia and Vermont are the only states that ban sales of 151-proof liquor. Despite such restrictions, Virginia residents could easily cross into neighboring states to purchase strong neutral-grain alcohols.

According to Knight, the motivation behind HB 1842 is economic. A House workgroup report showed ABC sold more than $13,000 in grain alcohol during the 2016 fiscal year to purchasers holding special permits for industrial, commercial, culinary or medical purposes.

“Now Virginians do not have to drive to other states, and give their tax money, to purchase this spirit,” Knight said. “This legislation will allow Virginians the same purchasing power as 48 other states, have the taxes come to the commonwealth, and provide restaurants with 151 (proof) for cooking purposes.”

Bluegrass program picked as state’s official TV series

By Amy Lee, Capital News Service

RICHMOND –Virginia has square dancing as the state folk dance and milk as the state beverage. Now it may boast “Song of the Mountains” as the state television series. On Thursday, the Senate passed a bill to add the bluegrass concert TV program to Virginia’s official list of emblems and designations.

The measure, approved by the House of Delegates on Jan. 25, now heads to the governor’s desk.

Del. Jeffrey Campbell, who introduced HB 1927, hails from Marion, where “Song of the Mountains” is taped. Nearly every month, country music artists and a live audience converge at the historic Lincoln Theater in Marion for bluegrass, old-time and Americana jams.

The concert series is taped live and distributed by PBS to more than 120 public television outlets across the country. The show is on its 13th season and has featured local, national and international guest performers.

The Appalachian Music Heritage Foundation, which owns the rights to “Song of the Mountains,” called the series “a strong attraction for visitors from out of town, an economic engine for Historic Downtown Marion and a significant contributor to downtown Marion’s renaissance – a phenomenon that is the envy of so many small towns throughout Virginia and beyond.”

However, “Song of the Mountains” has faced financial problems in the past. The program was once owned by the Lincoln Theatre, and in 2015, the theater’s board began a restructuring of the show in the face of funding troubles. Tim White, longtime host of “Song of the Mountains,” was fired, leading to an outcry from fans and Marion business owners who expressed fears for the future of the program. Eventually, “Song of the Mountains” was acquired by the Appalachian Music Heritage Foundation, and White was reinstated as host.

“Song of the Mountains” draws tourists to Marion and the Lincoln Theatre every season, but bluegrass aficionados in Virginia say the music genre is not just limited to the southwest region of Virginia.

“You take people like the Seldom Scene, and they were from around Washington, D.C., and they were instrumental in bringing bluegrass a long way,” said Mike Nicely, a bluegrass musician and board member of the Virginia Folk Music Association.

“There’s bluegrass throughout Northern Virginia and D.C., and there’s a lot of roots that come out of that area. I’m not saying it doesn’t come out of Southern Virginia and it doesn’t come out of the mountains, because it does, but it really comes from all over,” Nicely said.

Virginia has two state songs – “Sweet Virginia Breeze” (the official “popular” song) and “Our Great Virginia” (the official “traditional” song). “Song of the Mountains” would be the only representation of bluegrass and country music on the state’s list of “official emblems and designations.”

It would join such symbols of Virginia as the northern cardinal (the state bird) and dogwood (tree) as well as the big-eared bat (Virginia’s official bat), Nelsonite (the state rock) and performances of “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine” in Big Stone Gap (the official outdoor drama).

For Nicely, the General Assembly’s designation of “Song of the Mountains” as Virginia’s official television series is part of an upward trend of bluegrass music’s popularity, spurred by the genre’s humble roots.

“A lot of bluegrass music is based on true stories that’ve happened to people over the last couple hundred of years,” Nicely said. “A lot of songs have been written about different things that have happened – tragedies and so on that people have written about. That’s a lot of bluegrass, a lot of storytelling. It’s just an interesting part of history of the nation.”

House panel shelves bill to help ‘suitcase children’

By Amy Lee, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – They call them the “suitcase children” – youngsters who are shuttled back and forth between their parents’ homes amid messy divorce and custody battles. Regardless of which parent finally emerges victorious in court, the child loses time with friends, involvement in school activities and a sense of stability at home.

Two Chesterfield residents, with support from Del. Riley Ingram, R-Hopewell, have been fighting for a new law to protect these “suitcase children.” Roy Mastro and Stella Edwards drafted a bill that would amend the state code and hold guardians ad litem to greater accountability.

Attorneys who are appointed guardian ad litem in child custody cases are responsible for crafting a report on the child’s circumstances, including parent interviews and home and school visits. Sometimes, custody courts are manned by substitute judges – and when this happens, that report is the only information the court consults to decide a child’s fate.

HB 1957 would have required the guardian ad litem to complete a certification checklist and collect signatures of interviewed parties to be submitted alongside the report.

The bill is dead for this legislative session. The House Civil Law Subcommittee, which reviewed the bill, has decided to wait for a Supreme Court of Virginia work group study that will review the policies and procedures for a guardian ad litem.

“They keep bringing that up every year. Every year that we’ve brought this up, here comes that work study group,” said Mastro, who backed a similar bill that also failed to pass last year.

“I worked for Honeywell for 40 years, and my boss, when they had a study group or something, he said they spend too much time studying and not enough time with action. And that’s what you find, and Riley [Ingram] feels the same way.”

Mastro and Edwards don’t plan to stop fighting for children caught in parental court battles.

Edwards chairs the legislative committee of the National Parent Teacher Association. Besides being a PTA leader, she is a radio host on WVST-FM, where she speaks about civic engagement. Edwards says the evidence of trauma on “suitcase children” is becoming more and more evident.

“Folks see things, but they don’t say anything till someone else brings it to light, and then they jump on the bandwagon and say, “Yes, I can attest that this is happening.’ Teachers are broken-hearted seeing it every day in their classrooms and not being able to really do anything,” Edwards said.

“In many cases, even when a guardian ad litem is supposed to talk to a teacher or a guidance counselor, they don’t do that.”

It’s a sore subject for many parents, Mastro says, but not an uncommon story. He’s seen friends spend upward of $200,000 to challenge custody rulings that have placed their child with an unfit parent. Such money and time could be saved and children would be safer, he says, if guardians ad litem did their jobs right.

For now, Mastro, Edwards and fellow advocates are waiting for the Supreme Court of Virginia study, which is expected to be completed this May. Their priority is making sure a guardian ad litem certification checklist is included in the study. If it’s not, they’re ready to return to the General Assembly session next year with a fresh bill in hand.

“We’ll have to keep following this issue and putting it in the paper, and make sure people are aware of what’s happening,” Edwards said. “Otherwise, these are the kind of things that will very easily fall through the cracks. Whatever we can, we will continue to do.”

Alcohol potency bill causes buzz among colleges

By Amy Lee, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – College administrators remain concerned about legislation that would let the state’s ABC stores sell 151-proof grain alcohol.

Linda Hancock, a member of the Virginia College Alcohol Leadership Council, said she and other education professionals fear that such liquors – which are more than 75 percent alcohol – may attract inexperienced college students who tend to pour overly strong drinks.

On Wednesday, the House of Delegates passed HB 1842, which would allow Virginians to purchase 151-proof neutral grain alcohol at their local ABC store.

Hancock is the director of the Wellness Resource Center at Virginia Commonwealth University. However, she emphasized that she was not speaking as a VCU employee.

As a clinician and campus health educator, Hancock said she is not worried about the over-30 adults who are the main consumer base for Everclear, a popular brand of grain alcohol. It comes in two varieties – 151 proof and 190 proof. 

“151 is not a highly purchased item – at least, you would think it would not be. How many people are making limoncello, you know?” Hancock said, referring to Jello shots that some adults mix with grain alcohol at parties.

HB 1842 would amend Virginia’s existing laws, which set the cap of sellable alcohol at 101 proof in 1993. Despite their significantly stronger alcohol content, high-proof neutral grain spirits are tasteless, odorless and colorless, leading University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan to equate the liquor to a “date rape” drug.

The Virginia College Alcohol Leadership Council was a vocal opponent of a similar bill during last year’s legislative session before it was vetoed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe. Steven Clarke, then-director of the Campus Alcohol Abuse Prevention Center at Virginia Tech, warned of the potential side effects of allowing high potency alcohols on campuses, including “personal injury, property damage, and academic non-performance.”

William and Mary President W. Taylor Reveley III agreed, calling the bill “really a bad idea.”

A report commissioned by the governor last year included a Gallup poll revealing young adults’ increasing preference for spirits since the 1990s, as well as research that college students tend to put excessive amounts of alcohol in drinks.

The same report, however, emphasized that there is little evidence that the ban on 151-proof products has reduced underage drinking or alcohol misuse on college campuses.

“Most of the research that’s been done on grain alcohol has been done on the 191 proof, and so there’s not as much research on the 151,” Hancock said. “But common sense would lead you to believe that since the drink size of 151 is only seven milliliters smaller than a 191, a lot of the same issues would apply,”  she said. “Most of the evidence is anecdotal, but there’s still concern.”

HB 1842 was passed after the bill’s patron, Del. Barry D. Knight, R-Virginia Beach, added a five-year sunset clause to the bill, with the condition that legislation would revert back to 101 “if issues arise.”

Additionally, Virginia ABC stores will be able to regulate the sale of high-proof neutral grain spirits, meaning the ABC board could choose not to sell it in stores near college campuses. The Virginia College Alcohol Leadership Council announced plans to form a subcommittee to work with ABC regarding product distribution. The main focus for the next five years, Hancock says, is continuing to learn how to keep young alcohol drinkers safe.

“It’s really hard, because it’s odorless and tasteless, to track what’s done with it,” she said.  “The data is going to be hard to collect. But at five years, we’ll be able to see what kind of measures have been installed around it and whether we think they’re protecting college students and young adults. The main thing is that we for sure need more data, state-wise, about this issue.”

Virginia and Vermont are the only two states to ban sales of 151-proof grain alcohol.

Del. Aird Appointed to Appropriations Committee

By Amy Lee, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Del. Lashrecse Aird of Petersburg made headlines last legislative session as the youngest woman elected to the Virginia House of Delegates. This session, Aird is making news again for her appointment to the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

Aird, a 30-year-old Democrat, says she strives to “make sure that my district understands how great of an opportunity it’s going to be to have more representation at the ‘money table.’”

As a representative of the 63rd House District, which includes the financially troubled city of Petersburg, she acknowledges the weight of her appointment in the Appropriations Committee.

“My biggest priority is to dig deeper into understanding how they [Petersburg] were able to get in this level of fiscal stress, and what we as a commonwealth need to do to put protections into place and to allow them to have the tools and resources to prevent this type of challenge from occurring into the future.”

The House Appropriations Committee oversees the state budget. Under Virginia’s biennial budget system, the General Assembly is tasked with creating a budget in even-numbered years and amending it in odd years. The Appropriations Committee sorts funding priorities, introduces budgetary changes and considers budget amendment requests from House members.

House Speaker William Howell appointed Aird to the Appropriations Committee last week. The appointment was applauded by both Democrats and Republicans.

“I was very pleased to hear Del. Aird has been assigned to the House Appropriations Committee,” said House Majority Leader Kirk Cox of Colonial Heights. “Her thoughtful demeanor and strong work ethic will add great input to this vitally important committee. I look forward to working with her on the Appropriations Committee and advocating for the Tri-cities.”

Aird (whose first name is pronounced “la-sha-reesh”) was 29 when she won her bid for an open House seat in November 2015. During last year’s legislative session, she served on the House Finance Committee, an experience she says has helped familiarize her with budget processes.

“I just hope that my knowledge, skills and abilities have shone through in my first year that has allowed me the ability to get the appointment. I’m grateful, and I’m going to work so hard because it is a unique opportunity, and I think my district absolutely deserves that,” Aird said.

The Appropriations Committee consists of 15 Republicans and seven Democrats and is chaired by Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk.

In addition to her appointment to the Appropriations Committee, Aird identified education and workforce development as her top priorities for the 2017 session.

Aird serves House District 63, which comprises the counties of Chesterfield, Dinwiddie and Prince George, as well as the cities of Petersburg and Hopewell.

House Democrats Focus On Jobs, Wage Reform

By Amy Lee, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The Virginia House Democrats outlined their legislative agenda to raise the minimum wage, increase workforce training and protect minority rights during this General Assembly session.

The caucus, led by House Minority Leader David Toscano of Charlottesville, held a press news conference Thursday to reaffirm efforts to boost Virginia’s economy. “Our priority is to be laser-focused on creating jobs. That’s what our governor has done, that’s what we have tried to support, and that’s the positive message that Virginians want to hear,” Toscano said.

Democratic representatives took turns introducing legislation aimed to improve workforce practices.

Del. Kenneth Plum of Reston has filed House Bill 1771, which would increase the minimum wage from the current level of $7.25 to $10.10 per hour by Jan. 1, 2018.

Del. Matthew James of Portsmouth submitted HB 1592, to require community colleges to set policies that would award academic credit to students who have completed state-approved registered apprenticeship credentials.

Del. Jennifer Boysko of Herndon has filed legislation to address discriminatory pay gaps. HB 2190 would prohibit employers from inquiring about a prospective employee’s wage or salary history.

During the press news conference, House Democrats accused their Republican counterparts of focusing on “socially divisive” legislation such Del. Bob Marshall’s “bathroom bill,” which would prohibit individuals from using a bathroom of the opposite sex in government buildings.

Del. Mark Sickles of Franconia submitted two pieces of legislation to remove prohibitions on same-sex marriage which are no longer valid following the US Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. HJ 538 is a proposed constitutional amendment that would repeal the definition of marriage as “only a union between one man and one woman.” Similarly, HJ 1395 would repeal the statutory prohibitions on same-sex marriage in the state code.

Toscano presented the outlined agenda as an effort by the Democratic caucus to present “a positive approach to legislation.”

Republicans have also vowed to promote Virginia’s economic development during this legislative session, which began Wednesday. Top priorities on the Republican agenda included cutting government red tape to encourage job creation, instituting welfare reforms and funding public schools.

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