By Rosemarie O’Connor
Capital News Service
HENRICO — Democratic legislators representing parts of the Richmond area touted proposals Sunday designed to increase the number of school counselors, reduce gun violence and give tenants more time to reconcile before being evicted.
More than 100 constituents gathered to hear Sen. Jennifer McClellan of Richmond, who hosted the town hall meeting in Henrico County, along with Sen. Rosalyn Dance of Petersburg; Dels. Dawn Adams, Jeff Bourne, Betsy Carr and Delores McQuinn of Richmond; and Dels. Debra Rodman and Schuyler VanValkenburg of Henrico.
Education reforms and school counselors
Lawmakers emphasized the importance of increasing the number of counselors per student in Virginia’s K-12 schools. Currently, there’s one counselor for about every 329 students, according to the Virginia Department of Education. Legislators hope to incentivize schools to have a counselor for every 250 students, utilizing a proposed $36 million spending increase from Gov. Ralph Northam.
McClellan and Bourne also discussed their companion bills, Senate Bill 1107 and House Bill 1685, that would limit schools’ ability to refer students to law enforcement for lower-level disruptive behavior. The schools would still be able to refer students to law enforcement in many circumstances, including when there’s a threat of violence, among other things.
McClellan referenced 11-year-old Kayleb Moon-Robinson, who was charged with misdemeanor disorderly conduct and felony assault of a police officer after kicking a trash can during a tantrum in 2014. Both charges against Kayleb, who is diagnosed as autistic, were eventually dropped by a Lynchburg judge.
“This behavior needs to be corrected,” Bourne said, “not criminalized.”
Bourne recently filed HB 1921, to allow school divisions to put end-of-year surplus funds toward school-related capital renovations and maintenance, instead of having to return that money to the state.
“It may not be a whole lot of money,” Bourne said, “but every little dollar we can give a school division to maintain their buildings and upgrade their HVAC systems so their students can have safe, clean, healthy environments to learn in is a dollar well-spent.”
Affordable housing crisis
Legislators also said they will focus on housing affordability and evictions. McQuinn filed HB 1860 to amend the Virginia Residential Landlord and Tenant Act, which would extend the “pay or quit” period tenants have to pay rent after the landlord serves a written notice of termination of the rental agreement. This bill would extend the period from five to 14 days.
“We’re at a crisis,” McQuinn said.
Five Virginia cities are among the top 10 in the U.S. with the highest eviction rates, according to the recent “Eviction Lab“ study by Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond.
Richmond has the second highest eviction rate in the country, the report said. Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk and Chesapeake are also in the top 10. Carr said she’s presenting six bills focusing on evictions during the legislative session that begins Wednesday.
McClellan emphasized the need for affordable housing for low-income residents and “teachers, firefighters and officers who can’t afford to live in the neighborhoods they serve.”
Firearms and Gun Safety
Bourne said the “greatest failure” of the 2018 General Assembly session was not passing legislation to reduce gun violence.
For the 2019 session, with 18 co-sponsors, Bourne has filed HB 1644, which would require owners to report lost or stolen firearms to state police within 24 hours, punishable by a $50 civil penalty on the first offense.
Another McQuinn bill, requiring localities to prohibit firearms in libraries, did not pass in the past two sessions. McQuinn said she will “keep pushing that forward.”
McQuinn drew applause from the crowd with her closing statement about her proposed House Joint Resolution 617, which would declare 2019 a year of “reconciliation and civility.”