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Evie King

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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