Year in review: School safety, the housing recovery made headlines in 2013

By Ryan Cornell

While the housing market recovered and unemployment reached pre-recession levels in the Year of the Snake, parents and teachers worked together on improving the safety of students in schools, new school leaders came and went and places named “Wayside” transitioned into different hands. Education and business were busy news topics in 2013.

Shenandoah County Public School parents voice safety concerns

More than 100 parents and community members packed the Signal Knob Middle School auditorium a few days after the start of 2013 and less than a month after the Sandy Hook school mass shooting in Connecticut.

At the forum, Superintendent B. Keith Rowland and Sheriff Timothy C. Carter presented current safety policies as well as proposals for safety improvements for all schools in the county.

Since 1990, 52 school shootings have taken place, with 30 of them originating from students or persons inside the school.

Rowland mentioned some short- and long-term ideas to improve safety, including redesigning most of the schools’ front entrances so that a visitor would have to be checked and then buzzed in by someone in the main office before being able to enter a school. He said installing panic buttons in each of the main offices were an inexpensive and effective option.

“Unfortunately, it isn’t as simple as locking the front door,” He said.

He also brought up metal detectors and surveillance cameras, though they would require someone to man the device and monitor the footage.

In total, immediate changes would cost roughly $500,000, and long-term safety fixes could require more than $1 million.

Both speakers touched on the subject of mental health and said that it seems to be an underlying issue when any type of school shooting occurs.

Carter encouraged parents to read up on mental health and do their research.

“I don’t believe that if a parent feels something is wrong with their child, that they should be ostracized and not get the services or help they need, because then there’s suddenly a crisis that law enforcement has to deal with that could’ve possibly been avoided,” he said.

Valley Health, schools form partnership to help students aiming for health care careers

In April, a partnership formed between Valley Health, local high schools and two colleges to help young students start their journey toward a variety of health care careers.

The partnership, titled the Health Science Career Pathway Program, was unveiled to medical officials, school leaders and high school students at the Winchester Medical Center.

Not only would the partnership provide students with the opportunity to receive college credits dealing with health sciences, but it would also put high school graduates right into the Valley Health workforce. Valley Health is the largest employer in the region, employing about 5,600.

Mark Merrill, president and CEO of Valley Health — which put $300,000 of start-up funding into the program — explained that the courses, including certified nursing assistant programs and a biomedical sciences class, would benefit students at Lord Fairfax Community College, Shenandoah University and at all high schools and technical centers in Clarke, Frederick, Page, Shenandoah and Warren counties as well as the city of Winchester.

“This is truly one of the most exciting community partnerships that I’ve ever been a part of during my time with Valley Health,” he said.

Shenandoah school superintendent announces retirement

After serving as superintendent for Shenandoah County Public Schools for the past six years, B. Keith Rowland announced his retirement at a May school board meeting.

Rowland said the decision was tough to make and took much thought and consultation with others.

“I’ve been told that you’ll know when it’s time,” he said. “Even though I have some reservations and possibly even fears, I know it’s my time to go.”

Rowland’s involvement in Virginia public education stretches back 36 years with positions as a bus driver, teacher, coach, athletic director, assistant principal and principal.

Several of the initiatives that Rowland was involved in include an improved relationship with the Board of Supervisors, land acquisition, energy savings, maintaining SOL certification in all schools and progress with the Edinburg School project.

“Even though it may be time for me to retire, it is an opportune time for someone else to lead this school division,” he said. “This school division is poised to continue on the path of success.”

Rowland’s retirement became effective on June 30. He was replaced by interim superintendent Kevin Castner until former Sandy Hook Elementary School principal Jeremy Raley was elected by the school board as the new county superintendent in November.

Show won’t go on for Wayside Theatre

In early August, the board of directors at Wayside Theatre in Middletown interrupted a rehearsal for the once-upcoming production, “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,” and announced that they were closing immediately.

The Wayside Theatre, which was approaching its 52nd season as the second oldest theater in Virginia, had been plagued by financial problems in recent years. The board had warned in January that the theater would have to consider closing if it could not raise $90,000 in 90 days and be assured of making enough money to keep the theater going throughout the 2013-2014 season.

Although the theater was able to reach this goal through fundraisers and donations two months later, Board President Byron Brill stated in a release the morning after the decision to close that “…in light of a financial downturn beginning in 2008, two emergency campaigns and a series of low revenue producing plays, there simply was no alternative.”

Brill said the board discovered the day before deciding to close that they did not have the payroll for the staff, many of whom were stranded with no way to get home. Board Secretary Connie Stadler said the theater was a million dollars in debt.

“We ran three shows in a row that all under-performed,” she said. “One to the tune of $22,000 less, another one almost $20,000, so we were down, you know, by over $44,000.”

News of the theater’s closing rippled throughout the small community. The owners of the nearby Why Not Antiques and Irish Isle said the closing would have a major impact on their businesses.

Brian Coughlin, owner of the Irish Isle, noted the lack of communication since former artistic director Warner Crocker resigned in October. Coughlin said he was bracing for a lower turnout at his restaurant.

“I’m very upset about it,” he said. “The way it was done, the interns and actors had no idea. Four shows left in this production. It was just very abrupt and not very professional.”

After the closing, people with gift certificates and season passes also were left without refunds.

Forsyth inaugurated as R-MA’s 10th president

Randolph-Macon Academy officially inaugurated U.S. Air Force retired Maj. Gen. Maurice H. Forsyth as its 10th president in September to fill the position left by Maj. Gen. Henry M. Hobgood, who served as the academy’s president for 16 years.

Before retiring from the Air Force in 2010, Forsyth earned many military honors, including the Distinguished Service Medal, the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.

The inauguration featured a processional, prayer, music and an address by Shenandoah University President Tracy Fitzsimmons.

“I think today will be one of those significant moments on your timeline,” she said. “Students, faculty, staff…years down the road, you will look back and say, ‘That was something special.'”

Forsyth recognized the great strides taken by the academy since relocating to Front Royal in 1933 and mentioned Hobgood’s efforts to make R-MA one of only seven Falcon Foundation Schools in the nation.

“With the past as our guide, the present is our future,” he said. “We owe it to the past to take this institution to bigger and better heights just like those that went before us.”

Child uses experience to educate others

Since Gabriella Miller was diagnosed with pediatric cancer in mid-November of 2012, the 10-year-old girl from Loudoun County has raised $275,000 for the Make A Wish Foundation, founded the Smashing Walnuts campaign to raise awareness for pediatric brain cancer, co-authored a book and graduated from Shenandoah University.

“Childhood cancer of any kind is horrific, for the children, the parents, the families and the friends involved,” said Gabriella, who was also named Volunteer of the Year for Loudoun County. “Yet there is simply not enough funding to go toward research to develop proven treatments.”

After being diagnosed, Gabriella qualified for the Make A Wish Foundation. Her three wishes were to travel to Paris, become a published author and graduate from college.

Upon reading Gabriella’s book published in September, Shenandoah University President Tracy Fitzsimmons learned more about the girl’s story and wrote her a college acceptance letter.

In October, Gabriella experienced everything a traditional freshman student would, from getting a student I.D. and visiting a dorm, to taking classes worth 15 credits and earning the right to move the tassel on her graduation cap from right to left.

She also addressed a large crowd in the university’s theater, thanking the audience and holding up her honorary Bachelor of Arts degree.

“I had a wonderful day, but now I want the next eight years to go by quickly so I can come back and learn more,” she said.

New Wayside owners to reopen inn soon

George and Rebecca Reeves, of Toms Brook, became the newest owners of the Wayside Inn after purchasing the “country’s oldest continuously operated inn” for $750,000 in an Oct. 16 auction.

Rebecca Reeves said her husband, George Reeves, had always wanted to own a bed and breakfast. “But I felt like nobody would know about us,” she said. “[The Wayside Inn] has such a rich history and it’s right here on Main Street.”

Before being purchased by Jacob and Lois Charon in 2009 for $1 million, the 216-year-old inn was owned by Washington, D.C., banker and philanthropist Leo Bernstein, who also owned the Strasburg Hotel, Strasburg Emporium and neighboring Wayside Theatre.

The Reeves said they have a long history with Bernstein. Rebecca Reeves said she used to work with Bernstein in banking, their son worked at a D.C. hotel owned by Bernstein and George Reeves once worked for D.C. National Bank, which was run by Bernstein.

Located in Middletown on Route 11, the Wayside Inn contains 22 rooms, a conference and a restaurant, which is run by Strasburg councilwoman Sarah Mauck.

The couple said they plan to upgrade some of the older fixtures at the inn and paint the exterior of the property.

“We know that the people who bought it in 2009 put a lot of effort into it,” Rebecca Reeves said. “It’s a great opportunity. A very good price for the buyer and not so good for the seller.”

Woodstock native elected national FFA president, Signal Knob Middle School FFA chapter wins award

Two chapters in Shenandoah County left the national FFA convention at Louisville in November as winners.

Brian Walsh, who graduated from Central High School two years ago and was picked to represent Virginia, was elected president of the national FFA organization.

As only the fourth national president from Virginia elected, Walsh will spend the next year leading an organization of more than 579,000 members across the U.S.

He said his agricultural knowledge and speaking abilities were tested in eight different rounds by a committee of delegates who interviewed him.

“As the names started to be called and you see who’s on the team, I heard ‘Vir…’ and I jumped out of my seat and ran up,” he said. “It’s just an amazing feeling and a humbling experience to get to lead this organization.”

Walsh will be traveling to 40 different states representing the agriculture industry, talking to various FFA chapters and giving keynote presentations at state FFA conventions during his year off of Virginia Tech and will also represent the FFA in Japan and in Washington, D.C., at legislative conferences.

At the same national convention, Signal Knob Middle School in Strasburg received the Outstanding Middle School Award. According to a release, the top five three-star chapters in their division competed for the award.

TV3 Winchester ceases operations

TV3 Winchester, an ABC affiliate that has broadcast local news to viewers in Frederick, Clarke, Shenandoah and Warren counties since 2007, decided to close its local news and sales operations in early December.

Teri Lloyd, vice president and general manager of the station, called the closing “strictly a business decision.”

“The station was launched with an expectation to be able to support the revenue that we needed from local advertisers,” she said. “As time has gone on, we’ve realized that has not been possible in this market.”

Staff at the station, who learned of the decision the day it was announced to the public, were laid off and given severance packages.

Broadcasts from TV3’s sister station in Harrisonburg, WHSV-TV, have replaced programming on the channel for an indefinite period of time.

Contact staff writer Ryan Cornell at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or rcornell@nvdaily.com