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Evie King

Richmond Public Schools Rallies Community with Advocacy Training during GA session

By Evie King, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Amidst fast paced agendas that can be inundated with political rhetoric and obscured by legislative processes, the General Assembly often remains an enigma to many Virginians. Even to some Richmonders, who dwell within the same city limits of the Capitol building, the first months of the year dedicated to the state's legislative system can pass by in a blur of headlines.

Matthew Stanley’s job is to bring that fuzzy grasp of public understanding into a civically energized focus.

As Richmond Public School’s Director of Advocacy and Outreach, Stanley held three public meetings in January, training over 40 community members how to advocate and interact with their legislative body for the betterment of Virginia’s public education.

Stanley asked the handful of community members gathered at the Peter Paul Development Center gym Tuesday night, “In what ways have you already advocated in your life?”  

Cheryl Burke, RPS School Board member of the Seventh District, said she has advocated for Richmond’s East End children for over 40 years, “as an educator, and as a parent.”

Taikein Cooper said his advocacy roots date back to middle school, with the uncomfortable onslaught of puberty. After feeling mistreated by his teachers, Cooper reached out to his parents for guidance.

When they set up a meeting to sort out the grievance, Cooper said it went differently than he expected. “I thought [my parents] were going to advocate for me,” Copper said to two roundtables of listeners. “But instead they let me advocate for myself. They gave me a platform and empowered me to use my voice.”

Now in his early 30s, Cooper is executive director of Virginia Excels, an education advocacy platform for communities across Virginia. He said he came to the meeting in support of the RPS mission to encourage community advocacy in the 2019 General Assembly session.

As a liaison between the worlds of educational priorities and legislative bureaucracy, Stanley presented a condensed slide show that bulleted a tangible step-by-step process for citizen involvement.

“The most important people for you to communicate with are your representatives, you have a delegate and a senator, and you’re their constituent,” Stanley said, outlining the basis of the political relationships at hand. “What you say to them matters. Your voice does matter.”

Subsequent slides listed resources for finding legislators, and tips for contacting them via phone or email. There were also suggestions for navigating personal, face-to-face conversations with politicians: "be confident," "stay positive," assertive-not aggressive."

"And be excited," Stanley said. "Really, advocacy is being excited about helping people."

That's the word Holly Jones used when asked how she felt about starting her new job as a mental health professional at Armstrong High School next week. "I'm excited," Jones said, smiling and shrugging her shoulders.  

Just 25 years old, and newly graduated in 2017 with a master’s degree in social work, Jones said she is bringing a lot of energy into her position. "There are a lot of challenges to overcome, but... yeah, I'm excited," she said again.

Stanley said one of those challenges is the counselor to student ratio in public schools. The state currently funds a ratio of one school counselor to every 425 students, nearly double the nationally-recommended best practice of one to 250 students.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has proposed a three-year strategy with a $36 million investment to eventually reduce the state's ratio to the national best practice.

House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, released a memo in November with priority recommendations from the House Select Committee on School Safety, which included realigning school counselor's responsibilities so that "the majority of their time [is spent] providing direct student services." This would not, however, decrease the ratio.

Del. Roxann Robinson, R-Chesterfield, introduced HB 1735, which would review the current ratios and consider whether such a proposed alignment "is improving schools' ability to provide counseling services to students."

“It's a lengthy list… nobody has the answer to fix everything," Stanley said of the district’s list of priority recommendations and its "hashtaggable" goal to secure "more money to make better schools for stronger students."

Stanley handed out postcards at the end of the event and encouraged participants to write and begin fostering relationships with their legislators.

In white script on a red and blue background, some cards read “I support your position,” while others, in a more dissenting tone, read, “I disagree with your position.”  

Bipartisan Support Behind Bills to Curb Distracted Driving

By Evie King, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — For Roxanne Gabel and Tabitha Clark, advocating for “hands-free driving” in Virginia is about more than statistics; it’s a family memorial effort.

In November 2017, Gabel’s 21-year-old daughter, Lakin Ashlyn, was killed in a traffic accident when she was using Snapchat on her phone while driving, Clark, the young woman’s cousin, said at a Wednesday press conference held by the group Drive Smart Virginia.

Distracted by social media while heading to work, Lakin Ashlyn drove off the road and lost control of her vehicle, according to authorities. The young woman was not wearing her seat belt, and when she overcorrected, her car overturned several times. She was ejected and killed, leaving behind her 3-month-old son, who was not in the car.

Roxanne Gabel stood by the podium, tearfully holding the last Snapchat image her daughter took before the accident. Lakin Ashlyn’s eyes were large and round with a set of bear ears and a nose superimposed on her face by a Snapchat filter.

“What she was doing was not illegal. Snapchatting is not illegal, Facebook is not illegal,” said Del. Chris Collins, R-Fredrick. He and Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Stafford, are leading a legislative effort to prohibit cellphone use while driving.

Under current law, only texting while driving is a primary offense in Virginia. It can draw a fine of $125 for first offenders and $250 for recurring offenses.

HB 1811 and its companion SB 1341 would make any interaction with a cellphone while driving a primary offense, with the same fines applied.

“Traditionally I’ve resisted these [bills], I’ll be honest with you,” Stuart said at the press conference. “But it has come to the point where people are so totally engrossed in their phones that they are almost oblivious to the world around them, and that’s just a really dangerous recipe on a highway.”

The House and Senate bills have bipartisan support: They are co-sponsored by Del. Michael Mullen, D-Newport News, and Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax.

Legislators said the rising number of distracted driving fatalities shows the need for such legislation.

According to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, there were 208 distraction-related traffic fatalities last year, an 18 percent increase compared with 2016. During the same time frame, alcohol-related traffic fatalities fell more than 5 percent.

“In some respects, driving with a phone in your hand can be just as dangerous as driving with a .15 blood alcohol level,” Collins said. “When this is something that law enforcement takes seriously and something the courts take seriously, people will change their behavior.”

Before Legislative Session, a Serving of Eggs and a Prayer for Civility

By Evie King, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — As legislators, faith leaders and others tucked into their scrambled eggs and fresh fruit cups, two slideshow screens at the front of the room rotated Bible verses speaking to the theme of the 53rd annual General Assembly Prayer Breakfast: civility and reconciliation.

Politicians who packed the ballroom at the Greater Richmond Convention Center reflected on familiar Bible verses such as Luke 6:27: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”

Republicans and Democrats alike sat next to one another Wednesday morning, amicably asking about family members and the past holiday season while sipping orange juice or coffee. There was little hint of the potential political drama or partisanship of the impending legislative session.

Former Secretary of the Commonwealth Janet Kelly acted as master of ceremonies for the event. Bringing the room to attention with a chime of her glass, she blessed the food — "in Jesus’ name we pray" — and then introduced Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam.

Taking the stage, Northam emphasized the importance of unity among state legislators, working toward the common goal of the good of the commonwealth.

"We are a state that supports our veterans, embraces diversity and inclusion, and attracts visitors from all over the world," Northam said, addressing the sea of gray, navy and black business suits. "I spent my career as a child neurologist. Over the years, I saw thousands of patients and their families and never once did they ask me if I was a Republican or a Democrat, nor did I ask them. All they wanted was for me to help them."

As inspiration for his work as both a doctor and politician, Northam shared his favorite scripture, Matthew 25:40: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”

"I believe it is our duty as elected officials to ... help the least of our brothers. It is our duty to help the Virginians who need it the most," Northam said, citing the expansion of Medicaid as an example of that doctrine. Referencing his "tremendous friends" on both sides of the aisle, Northam ended with a blessing for the room and the commonwealth.

Three prayers followed: for children and families, led by first lady Pamela Northam; for public safety and military officials, led by Attorney General Mark Herring; and for those in need, led by Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney.

Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, shared a moment in his life when he personally experienced the Golden Rule, or Muslim Hadith: "None of you truly believes until he wishes for others what he wishes for himself."

When attempting to pass his first bill on the House floor years ago, Rasoul said he received a note from Del. Chris Peace, R-Hanover, with a tip on how to revive his dying legislation. "I believe we can both be very passionate about what we believe in and at the same time pass notes to each other on the House floor," Rasoul said.

The two keynote speakers both held positions in the White House for faith-based initiatives. Jedd Medefind worked under President George W. Bush, and Michael Wear under President Barack Obama. The two men delivered thoughtful speeches about the importance of civility in the world and the power of attentiveness.

As the breakfast broke up at 10 a.m., the room quickly emptied out. Legislators headed to Capitol Square for the session's first day, with a wish and a prayer or two.

Teachers Highlight School Funding as Priority for Legislators

Richmond teachers light up the Bellevue Overpass with their top priority for the 2019 General Assembly.

By Evie King, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — On highway overpasses on Interstates 95 and 64, more than a dozen teachers signaled to members of the Virginia General Assembly their top priority by holding up 14 foam boards with Christmas lights spelling out “fund our schools.”

Educators from Richmond Public Schools and a statewide coalition called Virginia Educators United displayed the signs Tuesday night ahead of the legislative session that started Wednesday.

“Legislators are coming into the city tonight to start session tomorrow, and we want to make sure they know, as they come in, what it is we care about,” said Sarah Pedersen, a history teacher at Binford Middle School in Richmond.

Pedersen said she and her husband, both public school teachers, truly love their work, but living on teacher salaries has put a lot of strain on the couple’s family planning.

Now raising their 1-year-old daughter and envisioning having more children, Pedersen said it’s hard to imagine how her family could grow with their current salaries.

“It breaks my heart to think that my daughter might end up being an only child because we cannot afford to have the family that we always dreamt we would,” she said.

According to the Virginia Department of Education, the average teacher salary in Virginia is $56,861, falling short of the national average by nearly $2,000. Starting pay for Richmond Public Schools teachers with a bachelor’s degree is about $45,000, according to the school division.

Holding the sign for an “o” in the word “school,” fellow RPS teacher Aaron Garber said he looks forward to working only one job instead of two to make ends meet. After a full day of teaching preschool at Linwood Holton Elementary, Garber said he often works construction and home repair jobs in the evenings or on the weekends.

“Which if I actually switched to full-time, I would make more money than I do as a teacher,” Garber said. “But I just love teaching. I love working with kids. It’s as simple as that.”

Gov. Ralph Northam’s 2019 budget proposal includes $268.7 million in new educational funding, $88 million of which would go toward a 5 percent teacher pay increase. Northam said the pay raise would help curb teacher turnover rates and improve retention. If approved, it would be the largest single-year pay increase in 15 years.

Keri Treadway, a teacher at William Fox Elementary in Richmond, said she is optimistic about Northam’s K-12 proposals but thinks there is room for further legislative action. “Vote yes, but find the rest,” Treadway said, smiling as she summed up the group’s energy with a pithy catchphrase.

With crumbling facilities, teacher vacancies and accreditation issues plaguing schools in Richmond and many other localities, Pedersen echoed the optimism for the governor’s proposals. But she said the issues were more expensive than what Northam’s proposal would cover.

“I don’t know how to give that soul transplant for a legislator who doesn’t understand that their constituents want a fully funded future for our kids,” Pedersen said. “But we are prepared to make that picture much brighter and much more clear in November. We will vote [lawmakers] out.”

Virginia Educators United plans to march to the Virginia Capitol on Jan. 28.

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